Don’t look away!

Jun 27, 2007 at 12:00 am

The idea that contemporary art actually wants to have a conversation might seem strange to a lot of us Tiger fans, American Idol viewers and Anna Nicole Smith buffs. After all, artists always come up with some weirder-than-ever riff on the world we think we know, and art often looks so foreign, so not real, that if it's trying to communicate, it must be using the wrong language.

The crew at MOCAD, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, begs to differ, having put together a summer series of film screenings to open up the conversation further, and perform that most important of all museum functions: art education. After all, how can we speak French unless we learn French first, or in this case surrealist, or International Situationist? There's also the chance that art lovers who've heard of, but never seen, some of these mind-blowing avant-garde classics will jump at the chance to finally partake of the dialogue. And well they should, because the lineup is nothing short of a revelation.

Thursday, June 28, 7 p.m. — Program I

Society of the Spectacle (1973) and Critique of Separation (1961) are two of Guy Debord's film tracts on capitalism's habit of turning everything into a commodity, and in the process further separating us from each other. Debord was a founder of the Situationist International (SI), a group of neo-Marxist artist-thinkers who took literally the surrealist idea of the transformation of everyday life, the notion that all of us could regain control of social reality by ignoring the spectacle (TV+sports+movies+theme parks+...) that capitalism uses to distract us, and instead focus our energies on remaking society. In case this all seems like pie in the sky, the SI saw its theories spring dramatically to life in the May 1968 student-worker revolt in France.

Ironically, Debord had no use for the art world as we know it, seeing museums and commercial galleries as just another diversion from the exploitation of our time and our labor. His films brilliantly (and exhaustingly) juxtapose samplings from Hollywood movies, documentaries and news footage, with voice-over intonations of his own analytical thought (an unauthorized translation of his seminal Society of the Spectacle was published in 1970 by Detroit's own Black & Red collective; send inquiries to Black & Red, P.O. Box 02374, Detroit, MI 48202 — or there are later editions from Zone Books, and AKPress). For more information about the Situationist International, go to

Thursday, July 12, 7 p.m. — Program II

Two milestones of French New Wave cinema — Alain Resnais' Nuit et broulliard (Night and Fog, 1955) and Chris Marker's La Jetée (The Jetty, 1962) — in one evening are a film fan's dream come true. Although each one clocks in at around a half-hour, they're as important events in film history as Godard's Breathless, or Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. Resnais' short documentary juxtaposes black-and-white footage of Holocaust atrocities with color sequences of abandoned concentration camps shot in the mid-'50s, barely a decade after the fact. In a stunning contrast, the shocking cruelty gets overwhelmed by our realization that, as the grass grows again, so beautiful and green, we have started to forget.

Marker's renowned sci-fi collage of still photographs (the source for Terry Gilliam's 1995 Twelve Monkeys) begins with the haunting phrase, "This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood." It's amazing that such a relatively short tale can be so gripping, and then so surprising. The principal concern of both Resnais and Marker is with time, its passing and its deceptions. (Coincidentally, the Criterion Collection has just released a single-disc set of La Jetée and Marker's Sans Soleil, both in new, restored, high-definition digital transfers.)

Thursday, July 19 — Program III

The surrealists, those avant-garde grandparents, dredged up all sorts of artifacts and detritus from the most unlikely corners of culture — to show that no matter how repressive "the system," it always has an unconscious. Thus following Freud's lead, they set about demonstrating how much of the marvelous they could discover where it lay hidden behind habitual ways of thinking — "convulsive beauty," surrealist godfather André Breton called it.

One of their favorite pastimes was going to the movies, because who knew what sensational something (or somebody) they might find in the dark? What René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and the others found on the silver screen, among other gorgeous convulsions, was a 1913 silent serial by Louis Feuillade, Fantômas, based on a popular run of French pulp novels. The anti-hero Fantômas is a criminal mastermind and leader of a gang of street thugs, who delights in robbing, kidnapping, and otherwise disrupting wealthy Parisian society. But this ancestor of The Joker has something wonderfully sexy and intriguing about him. What a joy it must have been for those avant-garde bad boys to participate vicariously in his capers — something like watching Ocean's Eleven, but with an aesthetic payoff. Feuillade delivers an eyeful of pleasure, from luminous photography, to sets that transform the everyday into magic, and every now and then, a daring shot rolls your imaginative socks up and down — a rare treat.

Thursday, July 26, 7 p.m. — Program IV

Closing out the MOCAD series is one of the most disturbing films ever made, one that however doesn't contain a single gratuitous frame. From E. Elias Merhige, the director who would later go on to make Shadow of the Vampire in Hollywood, Begotten (1990) is prefaced by a foreboding intertitle:

Language bearers, Photographers, Diary makers
You with your memory are dead, frozen
Lost in a present that never stops passing
Here lies the incantation of matter
A language forever.

Merhige then quickly shocks the viewer with grainy, high-contrast, black-and-white photography, an obsessive, natural-world soundtrack, and the mythical re-enactment of a drama so violent, so essential, that it becomes an obscenity of the first order, representing that which cannot be represented: spasmodic deformity, organic violation, primal chaos. Instead of trying to describe these images, let's just identify some of the characters in them: 1. God Killing Himself 2. Mother Earth 3. Son of Earth-Flesh on Bone, plus an assortment of life forms and beings not soon to be forgotten. This is true avant-garde filmmaking, thought provoking, and definitely not for the squeamish.

So let's get together soon and have an introspective conversation. Maybe after each screening (no promises) MOCAD might hold an actual discussion.

Once is not Enough

As an adjunct to the Models of Avant-Garde Film program, MOCAD presents a history lesson called "The Lost Avant-Garde." On Saturday evening, July 14, we'll get a chance to experience, drive-in movie-style, what Ann Arbor filmmaker George Manupelli was up to in the late '60s and early '70s in two pioneering examples of New American Cinema.

Manupelli, a co-founder of A2's Once festival of experimental music, devoted most of his creative energy to directing such features as Dr. Chicago (1968) and Cry Dr. Chicago (1971), which open a time-capsule onto what seems like another world. To understand what happens in Dr. Chicago, it helps to remember the early-'60s films of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni; the first James Bond film, 1962's Dr. No; and Andy Warhol's 1966 production of Chelsea Girls. Manupelli photographed Dr. Chicago in self-consciously long, black-and-white takes (à la Antonioni), satirized the idea of a criminal ring-leader surrounded by women acolytes (eerily like Charles Manson, who in '68 was just about to be discovered), and spread the performances of his actors with a thick layer of camp (clearly anticipating the look and tone of John Waters' films). It even appears that Manupelli cast Alvin Lucier in the lead role because of the latter's periodic, uncontrollable stuttering, which leads to some silliness and falling out of character for the principals. In fact, the impression of silliness is mostly what we're left with after viewing this overlong work, despite two scenes that manage to break through (one, a seduction, and the other, an epileptic fit, both involving the fascinating body of improvisational dancer Steve Paxton).

Paxton also shines in Cry Dr. Chicago (which was partially shot in the Cranbrook gardens), but so do Manupelli's seamless, flowing use of color photography, a much wittier script, a liberal sprinkling of nubile, naked maidens (one stunning bleached blonde strips down to her black muff), and a much better sense of timing in general. Even though Lucier (in real life, a fine avant-garde composer) mostly manages to be annoying here, immersing one's 21st-century mind in these pools of '60s memorabilia is a minor pleasure all its own.


MOCAD Drive-in Movie Night is Saturday, July 14 and on Saturday, July 28, beginning at 9:30 p.m.

George Tysh is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]