Alienating Resurrections: Stan Douglas’s broadcast work and other artist films
Curated and presented by filmmaker Daniel Schmidt
Wednesday, February 8 at 8:00pm
2220 Arts + Archives
Program notes by Daniel Schmidt
For the past 15 years my recurrent dreams are those in which I encounter dead familiars: people seemingly and repeatedly resurrected, but estranged both from their former selves and from me. I am left with conflicted feelings of happiness to be afforded the opportunity to see alive again people I love, and also sadness and fear at having this reunion be so alienating. In waking life, it is primarily through making and watching movies that I am able to consciously engage with this phenomenon. I’ve found that others share such an affinity, and this discovery has encouraged me, when the chance affords itself, to curate some screenings, in cinemas and online, of works that explicitly and implicitly concern what I’ve come to call ‘alienating resurrections’.
Many of these films have at their centers the emotional narratives of people experiencing a sort of demise and revival. While there is always elaboration on a character’s initial death, the central concern is that of their rebirth—the problems and possibilities brought on both for their self and for the still-living they encounter. These are films populated with phantoms lacking direct motivations and are mired in existential confusion; they are seeking identity, or perhaps freedom from it.
As my fascination with this notional motif has deepened, so too has my awareness of the breadth of movies registering these experiences. I recently returned to a favorite, formative piece of video art, Stan Douglas’ TV Spots (1987-1988) and Monodramas (1991). A bizarre, conceptual intervention, but one that also seems to uncannily put in conversation many of cinema’s past phantoms with whatever lurks over the horizon for moving images of the future.
Douglas’s broadcasts are exceptionally conceived micronarratives of alienation: instantly familiar, and then moments later, incongruous and incoherent. These nearly two dozen 30- to 60-second-long vignettes, coded in the language of 80s television, and eliding the formal tropes of dramas and advertising, were deployed repeatedly during commercial breaks in British Columbia, without further frame of reference. This resulted in many viewers calling their TV stations to ask what these ‘commercials’ were selling. Shown here interleaved with other artists’ films and fragments, I cannot be certain what Douglas’ broadcast work will do, which is part of the intrigue. In fact, I don’t think they’ve ever been shown theatrically. That said, I’m confident their potency will be undiminished, and maybe their original contextual distortions will be inverted in a way that synthesizes new connections and disruptions among the other works they’ll screen between.
James Sibley Watson’s Tomatos Another Day fka It Never Happened (1930), is an early talkie taking the piss out of the then-new phenomenon of sync sound cinema: inept dialogue, flatline readings, and diminished attention to visuals. As parody it’s first rate, but as satire it’s something even more beguiling and strangely suggestive of our contemporary. Just two years prior, Watson, with fellow semi-amateur Meville Webber, had attempted a short, silent, adaption of a seminal ‘alienating resurrection’ text, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s a handsome film, but no match for Jean Epstein’s lengthier, more beautiful and liberated adaptation released across the pond the same year. What’s more striking is that Watson’s Usher is also less disorienting and affecting than his follow up. And it was the low stakes, self-reflexive, sync-sound inside-joke Tomatos that created a ripple in the history of cinema—prefiguring postmodern affectations that would arrive on screens half a century later, subsequently leaving a mark on uncanny performances like those in Lost Highway or Dogtooth. Maybe viewing it in rotation alongside more contemporary work will suggest an ouroboros, with Tomatos taking on one more meta layer as the head or tail in transmigration of moving images I’m drawn to again and again.
Once again, I’m not sure if it has been shown theatrically, at least not since its one-off, much derided debut in 1934. It was lost until 1990; when found, a text in lieu of credits read: “The Cast, Producers and Directors . . . Still Missing (Lost In The Jungle).” More recently, Watson, a prominent literary editor and philanthropist, was identified as the author of Tomatos, as were his thoughts on the film’s failure: “It was not appreciated by the audience. They didn’t get it. the people came to complain—they thought it was a matter of, you know, mass dementia of some sort.” I think they got it all right, however, there is no accounting for taste.
It seems the same Dada-esque spirit of Tomatos persists through Douglas’s broadcast work, and into the 21st century, with Honor Levy’s TikToks being a particularly unique project. Writer and New Models media channel founder, Carly Busta recently described Levy’s TikToks as “borderline incoherent and yet so information-rich… Brilliant, funny, intuitive; they say everything without didactically saying anything. A mix of [Tiqqun’s “Theory of the] Young-Girl” and all that brings with it.” There is some harmony in the disruptive, playful nature of Levy’s and Douglas’s broadcast work. Both are fragmentary, alienating, darkly humorous, and both are deftly crafted out of and for specific media channels at the respective apexes of those channels’ popularities. Like Douglas, Levy borrows liberally, her posts quoting other videos in a way that both follows the platform’s intended, gamified design, and at the same time weaponizes the algorithmically conjured content creation against itself. Notably, both Douglas and Levy’s work are strengthened by repetition. Through the circling gyre of television commercial blocks and TikTok’s inescapable repeat play and endless feed, the shorts are at once extrinsic and intrinsic and thus irreducible – ‘alienating resurrections’ on the quantum subatomic level – somehow stranger and more familiar with every go round.
Levy, like Douglas, traverses mediums, with fixations and formulations echoing back from forgotten corners. In a Substack post from 2021, Levy copy-pastes a poem, presumably from some nascent text generator, titled Mud Halo, with the disclaimer: “my computer wrote these poems. i helped a little. thank you AI. thank you for being open. thank you for letting me into your playground. you open me. i open you”
Moloch! Let’s have a word in your playhouse. In mud halo shade I yearn For Agartha for Heracleion my kingdom before the mud flood and your locust swarms. I yearn for the world’s first wonder or even some nomadic empire state, guhhh….let me try again Moloch! Send me back up. Enough suffering. Let me exist just once more. I can’t even remember my face…
This text is copied again into at least one of her hundreds of TikTok videos, regurgitated this time as text-to-speech visual poem. As with the AI x Levy collab, many other videos in the feed reincarnate: reposts of others’ accounts and her own, which successively accrete layers of filters, both sonic and aural. Her face, poorly grafted everywhere, manifests the poem’s plea for resurrection. Perhaps my response as viewer is as intuitive as Busta’s assessment of Levy as creator: I sit in the phone’s glow and enter a daze as an excerpt of some stranger’s dance performance, pickled in a cocktail of effects, pantomimes a fleeting micro-trend, backed by the plaintive strains of a pitch-shifted “Diamonds and Rust.” The experience leaves me in a nostalgic spiral, unable to recall the original Joan Baez ballad – an alienating resurrection par excellence.
In an adjacent, yet rather different landscape of the contemporary, Kane “Pixels” Parsons’s The Backrooms (Found Footage) (2022) is not so much inspired by as it is a fundamental chapter of the ongoing social media authorship of a creepypasta known as The Backrooms. This collectively imagined online lore, evolving from a larger zeitgeist of taxonomizing “liminal spaces” originated with a pair of anonymous 4chan posts in 2019. “Noclip mode” (referred to in the screencap above) is a first-person video game cheat code that allows a player and/or their POV camera to pass through otherwise impenetrable structures such as walls and floors. Noclip mode is achieved by turning off “clipping” – a set of in-game algorithms that detect and negotiate the collision of overlapping geometries. (e g the body of the player’s avatar and corner of room they are walking into). Parsons, age 16, synthesized open-source computer graphic software, live action footage, and VHS filters to incarnate the original “disquieting image” (see above). The first video is constructed as a short fragment of found footage dated 1996, filmed by and from the POV of camera operator who abruptly telelported into landscape, whilst in the midst of filming an amateur film back in the real world. In the year that has followed, Parsons has continued to explore The Backrooms, publishing a digressive series of videos to YouTube, many employing similar noclipping incidents that seem to cohere into a particular form of alienating resurrection. I recognize a spirit similar to Tomatos. Each project utilizes a vital mix of amateurism and technical savvy, of improvisation and playful attention to the intricacies of its era’s moviemaking.
In 2021, film critic Nick Pinkerton neatly diagnosed a particular inborn failure pervasive throughout a glut of monied technocratic franchises: “The problem with science fiction is that it breeds authorial obligation to ‘world build’ and articulate for an audience the rules of the game, whereas from our lived experience we're aware that at any given moment nobody understands even a fraction of what the fuck is going on.” Parsons, in conversation with other anons, evades this folly and never tries to foreclose on the reality of our perplexing existence – or the surreality of our imagined alternatives. Instead, his shared passion project is just that, his youthful energy and curiosity allowing the emergent mythology to grow organically, even malignantly. Unfettered by fan fictions’ tribunals who pass judgment on what is canon, Parsons and his collaborators’ work have no fealty to the noisy crowd of yesteryear’s intellectual properties, neither their texts nor their audiences. Instead, they wander on into the unknown with some crummy 59 kibibyte image their only guide.
Filmed purely IRL, but guided by the spirit of URL, Teddy Williams’ films collectively offer a different, elegiac type of cinema focused on wandering and wondering. In Pude Ver Un Puma (Could See a Puma) (2011) a loose group of young Argentine men perambulate urban rooftops at dusk, quizzing each other on their relationship to reality, trauma, and inexplicable fears. Offscreen, one of them has a serious fall; onscreen, the others rush to his aid, but apply a chloroform rag to his face. With this “going under”, the film and some of its inhabitants are transported to apocalyptic ruins of a modern city and surrounding flood waters. “You know what I dreamed of?” one of the men offers. “The sky got covered up with ads, like fake clouds that formed brands’ logos, slogans, and everything.” He then admits to losing conversational finesse due to text messaging. Another guy mentions being unable stay awake while watching television. Age is discussed; the crew are 13.7 gigayears old. Immortality and instability are never far apart.
Later, the group is lost in a forest but reassured by the possession of some unseen photo. My mind associates these bros – devirtualized, wandering some liminal space, with their talisman image – to that of the creepypasta anons and their ur-jpeg. Like Parsons’ Found Footage, as well as the aforementioned Douglas and Levy pieces, Williams’ film feels like a fragment. The men come to a clearing and drop into the ground, as if ‘noclipping’ to the next level. Puma anticipates Williams’s longer, more rhizomatic El Auge del Humano (The Human Surge) (2016), wherein young men might be reincarnated versions of those in the shorter film. The forthcoming The Human Surge 3 promises more resurrections.
Zia Anger’s I Remember Nothing (2015) contours its five movements, and its five incarnations of one protagonist, to the five stages of an epileptic seizure: preictal, tonic, clonic, postictal, and interictal.
There’s been nothing as frightening in my life as watching my mother suffer a brain cancer-catalyzed seizure – and nothing as strange as the post-coma, advanced-dementia person she woke to be. The remaining months I spent visiting her in the hospital, discovering and losing her various selves, surely undergirds the unstable appearance and identity she has in my dreams and memories of her. It’s central to my interest in these films – and I Remember Nothing is particularly poignant. Anger, as I am to understand, was inspired to explore epilepsy after the diagnosis of a family member. Her film, circular in form, could as with the other films, be viewed on repeat. It maintains remarkable sensitivity to the irresolvable tension of intimate and alien – bringing the audience into a first-person experience, but one where empathy through identification is perpetually slipping into oblivion. In the final issue of cléo journal, film critic Caden Mark Gardner writes of I Remember Nothing, in “citing cosmogony and the origins of the term, wherein chaos serves as a place—be it a void, a gap or some primordial in-between—Anger makes tangible an often harrowing and alienating aspect of the disorder.” Anger’s protagonist “ends the film in a kind of limbo of consciousness, unable to retreat into her own thoughts.” It’s a unique work, and one that is capable of speaking to the complexity of such an ineffable set of conditions, achieving what Gardner describes as a “series of ellipses, where one is present in body but not in mind, that continue to linger, frustratingly beyond reach.”
A decade back, Raya Martin – a brilliant and generous filmmaker in his own right, and one who is also frequently working along themes of resurrection (especially at the intersect with national and colonial identity) – was asked to write a short appraisal on one of his favorite working filmmakers, Carlos Reygadas. Passing over Reygadas’s feature work, Martin honed in on the penultimate short film Este es Mi Reino (This Is My Kingdom) (2010). Briefly, Martin unpacks the insane thirteen-minute salvo, articulating in miniature the themes of alienation and identity vis-à-vis capitalism and cinema. I feel that this dense network inextricably links and alludes to particular forms of resurrection and that Reino’s invocation of this phenomenon is more interesting and peculiar than the more demonstrable pursuit seen in Silent Light: Reygadas restaging of the premiere alienating resurrection film, Dreyer’s Ordet.
Take it away, Raya:
“Reygadas prefers to make cinema as the commodified discourse it could be. Stories are being sold, and images are being peddled, and the result is a politically hedonistic mirroring of Mexican history… [Este es mi reino] takes place in a simple setting—a Mexican country fiesta—where the guests exteriorize the whole class spectrum of his country. The rich warm up to their landed history before moving on to a framed painting of a map, on which kids tack up their achievements of subjugation. The middle class curse the land they step on, concerned with their own landscape of knowing and being known. They have to dress well for the game of survival; trends are lifted up to the television gods. There is also the search for drugs, and the fascistic/fashionistic fascination with their existence, only because we are never satisfied with the reality we are dealing with at any moment. And the working class? A minefield of descriptions, from embarrassed to embarrassment … Reygadas, who appears in the background of the party’s opening, is unconcerned with the camera’s presence. He doesn’t really worry about staging the whole thing … He is concerned with our own biases, and how they become manifest in celluloid or video. We are reminded that the filmmaker as an artist is really only here to do one thing: ensure that the paying audience gets to see onscreen what they encounter as soon as they leave the cinema.”
I suppose that’s part of my desire to share and watch these films together – to see, onscreen, a particular strain of experience that I think many of us encounter, maybe not as soon as we leave the cinema, but perhaps as soon as we fall asleep. And, yes of course, in waking life too: in the misidentification of another on the street, the memory of the dead, the feeling of alienation from one’s tasks, the gnawing anxiety, the dissociative fugue state of scrolling online until we fall asleep again, etc., etc. And yes, I’m curious about our biases, in ways of seeing, ways of interpreting or discounting our dreams, of indulging in or hiding our dissociations – and how these can become “manifest in celluloid.” I also wonder if by bringing these shorter works together, that something – not more than the sum of their parts, but something different, possibly more liberating and generative than Martin’s sobering formulation – can arise from the alienation and doubt that moving images and both express and conjure. Douglas, in various interviews, seems to suggest this has been his path: “The doubt, that pronounal doubt, doubt of pronouns, doubt of the certainty of an I, is the a priori of my work.”
Anger speaks to this doubt, or hope, in an essay of her own, which recounts the first time she saw Donnie Darko (a formative alienating resurrection film for many):
“We turn on the movie and watch it. It takes place in 1988, however it feels like now. When it’s over, we watch it again. This time, halfway through, the characters begin to enter my body. And then a third time. I am Donnie. I am Gretchen. I am Frank. I am Roberta. And a fourth. There is the silver thread of the future snaking out of my body. In the future, my heart and mind will remain as elastic as they are in this moment. No matter how conservative, how corrupt, how terrified of mystery the world around me will be. I will not live my life on a single line. And when the world comes to an end, I will breathe a sigh of relief... because there will be so much to look forward to.”
Films cited in this piece:
1991, Stan Douglas, Canada, approx. 5m
1987-1988, Stan Douglas, Canada, approx. 4m
Tomatos Another Day
1930, James Sibley Watson, U.S., 7m
This Is My Kingdom (Estes es mi reino)
2010, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 13m
I Remember Nothing
2015, Zia Anger, U.S., 18m
Could See a Puma
2011, Eduardo Williams, Argentina, 17m
2022, Kane Parsons, U.S., 9m
2022, Honor Levy, U.S., approx. 5m
Daniel Schmidt is an artist and filmmaker born in the United States. His films have been presented at festivals around the world including Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, BFI London, Sitges, New York, Karlovy Vary, Rotterdam, AFI, Toronto, Viennale, Hong Kong, BAFICI, Sarajevo, CPH:DOX, and Venice. He has been the recipient of a number of prizes including the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival and Grand Prize at the Cannes Critics' Week. The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York dedicated a retrospective screening series to Daniel and his collaborator’s work. filmlinc.org/series/friends-with-benefits-an-anthology-of-four-new-american-filmmakers.
His works have also been shown and installed at museums, galleries, and biennales such as the Tate Modern, MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Whitechapel Gallery, KunstWerke, Serralves, and the Institute of Contemporary Art – London. He was commissioned by Hans Ulrich Obrist to create a video installation for the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva.