Pictures of an Exhibition(ist): Films by Brian Frye
Rating *** A must see
By Fred Camper
In recent decades film theorists have studied “spectatorship,” attempting to understand cinema’s peculiar power “to seduce, entertain, or otherwise appeal to its audiences,” as Judith Mayne puts it. Models for spectatorship have been proposed from philosophy–Plato’s cave has been taken as a metaphor for the movie theater–and from psychology: film viewing, fundamentally voyeuristic, encourages a fetishistic attachment to its characters. But such theories generally take mainstream Hollywood filmmaking as their paradigm and ignore the tradition of nonnarrative avant-garde films. Even these, however, usually make some attempt to appeal to the viewer, whether through lush imagery, music, or personal revelation.
The work of Brian Frye, a 23-year-old from northern California recently transplanted to New York, is different. And the six films in his first one-person show–at Chicago Filmmakers tonight, when Frye will be present–represent some of the most original work I’ve seen recently from a new filmmaker. Redefining the relationship between spectator and film, his somewhat hermetic works–mostly silent, all in black and white, and varying in length from two minutes to about half an hour–don’t offer any of the usual moviegoing pleasures: not only are there no plots, but Frye’s images are neither entertaining nor seductive, nor is his editing particularly rhythmic or immediately satisfying. Instead his unassuming, almost offhanded work points toward an intellectual cinema that questions the ways we see and know the world.
Frye began making films as a Berkeley undergraduate, then received an MFA in filmmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute; among his inspirations are filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton, and Ernie Gehr. Not surprisingly, several of Frye’s films mimic certain art-school genres, but with differences that make them more commentaries than imitations. Frye himself appears in four of them, but in ways that subvert the narcissism inherent in filming oneself.
The two-minute Brian Frye Fails to Masturbate shows the filmmaker fully clothed, sitting in a chair fidgeting, seemingly unsure what to do with his hands. Inspired by the joke that student performance artists just get up in front of the audience and masturbate, this film in one sense merely illustrates the stereotype: Frye makes his body the subject. But because he appears not to know how to sit and where to look, and because the film is not obviously artful (it’s a single take not particularly well framed), his body becomes the locus of instability rather than a fetishized object. The title adds an element of pathos, making his discomfort ours as Frye announces his failure at the one thing virtually every young man can succeed at.
6.95: Striptease might have been titled “Brian Frye Fails to Strip.” We see Frye disrobe, but when he gets to his white undershorts, the roll ends in white flare-outs. There’s also something strange about his movements, especially when he drops his shirt–because in fact he ran the camera in reverse while putting his clothes on. As a result, the work is much more than a joke about not doing what so many other student performers are quite happy to do. The unnatural-looking movements and the expectation set up by the title in effect comment on conventional narrative cinema, in which the film’s end is supposed to resolve the plot’s overarching “issue”: Will they have sex? Will they get away with the crime? Here, once one realizes that Frye’s movements are off, every instant seems peculiarly nonlinear, anticipating the final reference to the material realities of film.
Further, 6.95: Striptease often has a splotchy yellow tint that’s the result of home processing. Frye minimized the tint in some of his other films but intentionally did not do so here. The image’s occasional yellowish field combines with the reverse motion to denaturalize Frye’s figure: he seems trapped on the surface, in the emulsion. Moreover, because Frye has no copies of most of his films–the six on this program are all edited originals–what the viewer sees is a unique object. The splotches and scratches and dust contribute to the sense of film as an object rather than a transparent window onto some reproducible “reality.”
Frye’s point in 6.95: Striptease, as in all his work, is that we cannot directly know the world by seeing it. Among various short texts he’s written are meditations, influenced by Wittgenstein, on the limitations of language, including film language. In one essay he argues that since the moving image exists not on the screen or the retina but in the viewer’s mind, which is what creates the movement, cinema is not a “reflection of the Real” but rather “a self-aware language.” While Frye’s self-abnegating presentation of his body surely has a psychological dimension, offering an alternative to narcissistic art, that presentation also has a deeper, almost epistemological level. Frye qualifies his own physical presence because he believes that film never really allows us to know anyone, and he underlines film’s materiality to foreground that unbreachable gulf. Offering us the inverse of cinematic “attractions” to entertain and delight, Frye makes of himself almost an antipresence–a human image who never provides the sensuous physical illusion of “being there” with us.
Perhaps the most explicit of Frye’s antiattractions is World’s Fair and Exhibition, inspired by Joseph Beuys. Wearing a suit and hat, Frye performs various weird actions: he sets a sardine-can “navy” afloat in a barrel and makes sandwiches out of thumbtacks and bread. What appears to be a frying pancake turns into a small group of soldiers as the “batter” burns away: Frye actually filmed in reverse plastic soldiers melting in a pan. His slow, almost lugubrious performance of these actions so denaturalizes the film’s references to violence that violence itself comes to seem dadaistically absurd.
Despite Frye’s provocative use of himself as subject, his best films on this program are the two in which he does not appear. Both use found footage, though their use of it is antithetical to the genre’s usual approach, which is to emphasize the humor or absurdity of the material, whether a major world event or a TV commercial. Frye’s Meeting With Khrushchev is not an easy film to like, but repeated viewings reveal a work of immense weight, a moving combination of intense nostalgia and thoughtful meditation on the impossibility of ever completely understanding history.
About a half hour in length, Meeting With Khrushchev is a refilming of a sequence perhaps 15 seconds long showing a meeting between the Soviet premier and President Kennedy. Frye slowed it down in reprinting, resulting in a sequence just over a minute in length, then he rephotographed it 20 more times with varying degrees of magnification; for the final film he intercut all 21 strips, editing in a way that seems neither random nor precisely calculated. We might see shots of grain patterns, sometimes colored by hand processing, shots of the action that are a little clearer (Kennedy’s back, for instance, might be barely distinguishable), and occasional views of the “master shot,” showing Kennedy turning or Khrushchev emerging from a limo. Ultimately their meeting comes to seem part of an almost mythic past, and the grainy patterns and home processing suggest the decay of old frescoes or manuscripts–filmic metaphors for the way culture is lost to time.
On a primary level Meeting With Khrushchev is a film of denial: we cannot know these figures, what they were about or what history is about, because they’re creatures of celluloid. By intercutting grainy images with images that are fairly clear with images in which eyes, say, are about the same size as the grain, Frye “proves” the thesis that great events on film remain merely film. But across the work’s running time, Frye elicits an odd contradictory magic: the sudden emergence of recognizable figures like apparitions from the chaos of random abstract forms gives them an unfathomable power, as if they were Homeric characters out of a past we can barely apprehend. Indeed, in one program note about this film Frye uses a quote from what is perhaps Western civilization’s greatest ode to heroism, the Iliad.
This footage comes from a time before Frye was born, of course, but he says it wasn’t chosen by chance. Citing Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition, he calls the Kennedy era “the swan song of political life in America. Arendt talks about words and deeds, how the action of the citizen can be significant. The president is the stand-in for the political life that’s been relinquished by the populace. But I don’t think people think about the president in the same terms anymore–he’s no longer someone you expect to respect.” And indeed the larger-than-life cultural status of Kennedy and Khrushchev–emblems of a struggle for world power–heightens the impact of these fragments. Frye’s form once again denies any heroism, but the denial here and elsewhere isn’t just political or epistemological: the self-abnegating severity of his images, their weird standoffishness, has an almost irrational emotional component.
Even more moving is Ladies Day, a reedit of slowed-down newsreels accompanied by elegiac music by Haydn and Monteverdi. Again, time and spectatorship are key themes. Many of the images show people who seem to be looking at things we do not see, almost enraptured by them. The grainy footage is obviously decades old, and its slow pace adds another level of distance to the offscreen glances, whose objects are rarely shown. When we do see action–as when someone washes an animal–it’s often even more blurred and grainy than other sections.
For the original version, Frye used intertitles from a newsreel about Africa–“Fifty years ago these were cannibal islands,” for example–that created a cognitive dissonance with his subjects, who were mostly white. I think Frye was right to remove the intertitles, which exoticized his images. But a less obvious version of “exotic” distance remains: we realize we’re watching a world we can never really understand. And in fact that’s true of every film; it’s just that Frye is one of only a few filmmakers to acknowledge it–to make films that meditate on their limitations rather than celebrate and exploit cinema’s power.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ladies Day still/ 9.95: The Most Important Moment in My Life (Infinite Set) still.