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DVD Review: Hors Pistes: Volume 3

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What an odd collection of not-very-short films. Hors Piste: Volume 3 is a selection of three films that screened during the 2008 eponymous film festival at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, which pays tribute to new forms of visual expression. There are beautiful moments in these films; however, when considered as a whole, they make me question whether we should really keep cutting the edge of art.

The Music of Regret

The first short, “The Music of Regret,” is a film in three parts by American film director Laurie Simmons. A visit to Laurie Simmons’s webpage suggests a mind that transforms the mundane or stereotypical into the extravagant and bizarre with an intense pleasure. Scenes that are reminiscent of 1950s television sitcoms have been transfigured into the stuff of nightmares, but with a bright Matissian palette that makes you feel as though her subjects will cancan off the screen at any moment, or conversely, in muted tones that suggest the intense sorrow behind the stitched-on smiles of her grotesque puppets.

“The Music of Regret” is the most captivating of the films, and also the most complex, stylistically and thematically. The first part opens on several male dummy puppets rotating around Meryl Streep, who then shares various intimate moments of life with the different puppets. The strange, plastic, frozen quality of the dummies seems to gently mock the petty dramas of life that keep us paralyzed as well, despite the mobility of our flesh. In the same measure, the similarities among the puppets (the men seem interchangeable to Streep, as if they are even the same person) remind us of our own similarities: sometimes for good, as they connect us to others, but often for bad, as society forces us to conform to a prescribed plotline.

But there is still a hopefulness in the caring that is shared between Streep and the dummy, especially as they sing “live in the present with an open mind” on the beach. This love humanizes the dummies and gives poignancy to the drama we all experience.

I particularly like Simmons’s completely unrelated final act, which showcases solo dancers on a stage, all dressed as different objects and representing particular emotions through their dance styles. The violence of a gun, the comfort of a house, the naïveté of a cupcake, the weightiness of a book, the graceful pompousness of a wedding cake, the impatience of time; all these ideas are presented in quick, skipping succession until time overcomes all and forces the curtain to fall on the act.

Les Hommes Sans Gravité

I would like to say that French film director Eléonore Weber’s understated portrait of two young men sharing a room and exploring each other captures a deeper reality of life through its muted depictions of a simple relationship; however, I am not convinced that it does.

The short opens with a woman speaking with one of the young men, asking if the other, older man is crying. The man is staring straight ahead, sobbing, yet the young man persistently repeats that he is not crying. Is this Weber’s assertion that fact is all relative, and there is no absolute reality, or is it just an absurd opening to a strange film?

“Les Hommes Sans Gravité” continues by exploring the homoerotic relationship between the two men, who state emotionless, simple sentences to each other, such as, “We both got fucked in the ass for 2000 euros,” and ask each other the types of basic questions shared by strangers. In the French Surrealist tradition, the film is a progression of random thoughts. The men speak non sequiturs to each other while they sit in their underwear, smoking cigarettes. As far as I can tell, this is a portrait of two blasé young men. The one exception is a stunning scene in which they find a letter from an indecisive suicide case pondering the beauty of life. The overall theme of the film is an exploration into the meaning of sex and relationships, and what our opinions on these subjects say about us as humans.

It almost seems a toss-up as to whether or not “Les Hommes Sans Gravité” is beautiful and poignant or insipid, pointless, and absurd. I might find some depth to it, if it were not for the fact that I am getting tired of this type of trite art, that continues to examine the mundane, when the time for that has already passed. There is nothing left for art to shock us with, and the unusual and cryptic is no longer uncommon in the art world, yet art such as this continues to follow these veins. I for one would like to see artists return to tackling the most pressing questions of the meaning of life in the most complex dialogue. Just because an innuendo is subtle does not always mean it is significant.

In the Wake of a Deadad

The final short in the compilation, “In the Wake of a Deadad,” by British director Andrew Kötting, is a long series of shots of Kötting traveling to places with meaning to him with a larger-than-life blowup version of his father, after his real father’s death.

The opening scenes of “Deadad” are quite creepy, with resonating music and what, I assume, are death photos of his actual father. Yet, the progression of the film moves from this intense pain to a lighthearted appreciation of life by creating an inflatable effigy who partakes in activities such as playing with the grandkids and visiting old hang outs. Since there is not a lot of plot, the details take on greater significance: the fact that father, son, and later grandfather (through a turn of events, Kötting ends up making an effigy of this ancestor as well) all wear the same suit; the crazy look on his father’s face, that is impossible to distinguish as exuberant or maniacal. Perhaps this look is only logical, as facing life and death should make us both insane and jubilant, and especially uncomprehending.

But the beauty of “Deadad” is in the moments when Kötting transcends his father’s death, to revel in the joy of life. The final scenes of the film are especially transformative: lying on his father, contemplating the meaning of life; teaching his father how to surf in L.A.; bouncing on his father like a moonwalk. And, in the most poignant scenes, Kötting can let his father go, considering life after death while fireworks explode around the figures, and then going inside his father’s very being, with final shots of the whiteness of the interior of the inflatable effigy.

I studied abroad in France, and seeing bizarrely dressed characters dancing on stilts to celebrate the opening of a plaza, or a start-of-year party with men in bikinis dancing with pythons prepared me for that country’s odd artistic aesthetic. Perhaps it is only logical that the culture that brought us Impressionism, an art form which broke every accepted rule of what art should be and shocked the audience by bombarding them with questions, not answers, should continue to present confounding art.

Yet, in Hors Piste, I was searching for that thing that Simmons’s refers to as “the pleasure of unexpected discovery” in this collection, and what I found was myself questioning the purpose of art in modern society. But perhaps this type of questioning has its own merit. 

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About Kerri Shadid