The distance between us: thoughts on The Florida Project and The Square

Spoiler Alert: if you’ve not yet seen either of these films, the following piece mentions various scenes and plot points.

The difficulty in writing a review of The Florida Project is twofold, and both of these aspects speak to the power of the film.

The visuals are overwhelming in an aesthetic sense, with the pastel (yet vibrant) colours, with motels that seem to have fallen – and been damaged in the degradation – out of a Disneyland paradise, overwhelming architecture (Project must be seen on the big screen) that proclaims a dreamy ideal that is repeatedly, and directly, exposed as false by the characters on screen. The base lives of quiet desperation chronicled by the characters belies the “fairy tale” facades of the scrubby motels that are the backdrop to their daily struggles. All of my words there are not the equal of the few seconds where Mooney or Dickey traverse their decayed “Disneyland”.

But going deeper than how The Florida Project exposes a facade of America that’s often – still – obscured by performative, or slightly worn, artifice (like sequins worn from a gaudy costume), the emotional resonance of the film is hard to put into words. The stories of the people transcend the idea of “players”, or “actors” (unsurprisingly, Bria Vinaite and Brooklyn Prince are fresh faces, unmitigated and truthful in their portrayals. But they hold their emotional weight with Willem Dafoe here, like tragic participants in a inevitably sad story….).

It’s a rough, emotionally raw film: the manner in which it ends is perhaps one of the finest examples of the vision of Sean Baker (director / writer) and Chris Bergoch (writer). As the story builds to what can be seen as an inevitable confrontation, we’re given a scene that is alternately a visually enticing “escape” but also one that we know is fake.

The Florida Project has been praised in many reviews as a story about childhood, and I’d echo that, in that its a contemporary foray in that genre. But I’d add go beyond that, in light of the ending (in conversations with many, both within and without the cultural sphere, the closing scene has marked us all without exception). Firstly, the manner in which the Disney “castle” backdrop suddenly comes to the fore, in Mooney’s world, took me back to watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child, after supper on Sunday nights, with my siblings. What we watched eludes me, and like many memories, it’s more visual and emotional than relatable in language. This experience was elicited so immediately, and so easily, by this scene, when I’d not thought of it in years.

Less warmly, the lies we’re told in childhood and the loss of innocence that comes hand-in-hand with the loss of those years is implicit to the desperate nature of Mooney’s flight from the failure of her domestic situation and the intrusion of cold reality into her world. An addendum to that last statement: Halley (Vinaite, as Mooney’s mother) jokes at one point that she’s a “failure as a mother”, in an amusing exchange with Defoe where the privileging of “tourists” above all else is discussed. But Halley reminds me of a lot of parents I know, who do the best they can with what they have, and that are doomed to fail despite doing all they can. Their situations say more about “America” than anything else. In full disclosure, I saw I, Tonya (the story of Tonya Harding’s brief rise and long fall) the same week as The Florida Project, and class and the lies of the “American Dream” inform my interpretations.

I hesitate to cite Donald Trump’s America. Too many of my critical brethren (especially in privileged sites like Canadian Art) seem to think they have an obligation to cite Trump in any and every piece they write, whether relevant or not. I eschew the idiocy that artists are magical unicorns that can change the world, to quote an excellent response to the 2017 Berlin Biennale. But the fact that The Florida Project is fictional does not make it any less true, or any less resonant, for what America is, right now, as opposed to what it would like to pretend it is (Horatio Alger is dead, and the American Dream never was true). Like Disneyland, once you see the facade, you can’t pretend that it is not there. The centre doesn’t hold.

The Florida Project is that rarity, in that it seduces and saddens, simultaneously. It’s required viewing for 21st century America (like a look in the mirror…).

———————————————

The Florida Project could be described as exposing a reality often obscured by artifice. The Square is something else entirely, and to attempt to encapsulate what it was about is as difficult as trying to define relational aesthetics, which is an art world citation that appears, either by direct reference, or implicit in interactions and artworks, throughout the film.

The Square seems more a series of vignettes that are interconnected, that in some ways enhance each other, or do the opposite, or do nothing at all with each other. It’s a long film: at some points it drags, but several scenes evoke a visceral response that is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé and his irreverent fracture of what film is / should be / “shouldn’t” entail (Enter The Void, perhaps, or Irreversible). Ruben Östlund is both the writer and director of this lauded film, as it won the Palme d’Or and been vetted at various international festivals.

A “digression, but a pertinent one” (to quote Mordecai Richler’s verbose Barney Panofsky): I’ve been consuming a lot of film lately, and one of note that I saw for the first time was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

It’s not good: I can’t help but feel that it benefits from how, in the visual arts world (especially the Canadian contingent), “meaning” and “relevance” is projected into something whether its there or not, and that ontological quality is neither relevant nor to be considered, comrade.

But – a very large “but” – there’s an idea suggested in the article Cinema crudité in Harper’s Magazine, that what Wiseau does is refute – or ignore – our expectations of what film should be, that are not any more set in stone than the idea that once the camera didn’t move at all, or that characters couldn’t speak over each other (Robert Altman’s Nashville). As one critic said to W. D. Griffiths indignantly, why didn’t he show people’s feet? Our expectations of what is a “movie” is as facile as anything else, as prescriptive as any propaganda: consider David Lynch, or Eisenstein’s invention of the “cutaway” in Potemkin or Anger or Riefenstahl. Film is not an old medium, and what we expect is not always all that can be done. “Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind.” (Doris Lessing)

I must mention Adorno’s idea from Minima Moralia, that when many are confronted with something genuinely new they often fall back on the “shamelessly modern assertion that they don’t understand.” (I mentioned that I’ve been a bit of a cinephile lately: Luv, from Blade Runner 2049 spits that “in the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it”).

Returning to The Square: it’s a complex film, that bores sometimes, but then holds your attention so well that you’ll “awake” when the scene is done to realise that the action that just elapsed has affected you physically, with heart racing.

I offer two tangential observations, and I reserve the right to change my mind later (the aforementioned Harper article on Wiseau, by Tom Bissell, spoke smartly of how repeated viewings of a film, or time to digest what we’ve experienced, can and must change our opinions).

Firstly, in its overt and subliminal exploration of relational aesthetics, I return to Richler: “Life [is] absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else. Not a comforting philosophy…”

The conversations, arguments and confrontations suggest this gulf that exists, whether occurring naturally or influenced by characters’ actions. Exchanges are fraught with potential disaster. The stuttering, angry and resentful exchange – only to be resolved in some manner – between the critic Ann and the curator Christian (Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang), with the dangerously tilting artwork in the background, and the accelerating crashing noises suggesting impending failure was one of the finest scenes in The Square. It blended humour and pathos well, and was alternately touching and moronic.

That’s a scene that slyly but audibly threatens: but the second observation I’d offer about The Square is more grotesque, and its a tableaux that’s haunted me. It’s a scene that could be removed and presented on its own, and in the succession of vignettes its one that balances some of the banal segments with a violence (implied and literal) that shows what performance art could be, if it wasn’t so irrelevantly self referential and self aggrandising.

Another digression: my dismissal of performance art is because I’ve endured too much of it that proclaims transgression and not only fails to deliver, but gives you boredom instead. It need not be like this: if you’ve seen The Artist Is Present, I suggest researching what Marina Abramović and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) did when they were still collaborators, and many of their works (Relation in Space, or Relation in Time) made audiences uncomfortable, and skirted danger to themselves and others. Ambromović’s seminal Rhythm 0 where she invited “participants” to do what they liked to her with objects provided, maintaining a passive role, is horrifying (that took place in 1974. We’ve gone backwards, not forwards, since..). But if it’s strained and anxiety inducing, it is indisputably (as with Chris Burden’s Shoot, from 1971), and perhaps criminally, real.

When we see what passes for performance art now, of eating too many Big Macs or sitting on an ice cube with a lit candle and expecting your “audience” to endure the boredom you’re inflicting, apathy is understandable. In conversation with an audio performance artist and a painter once, in Regina, I let slip that I often secretly think of many Canadian “performance artists” as akin to the obligatory, somewhat abusive, porn scenes where the “money shot” is on the female performers’ face, and she’s just being used as a reluctant receptacle of someone’s unpleasant manifestation of ego….

A funny story: several years ago, at the now closed Mendel Art Gallery, I was in the audience for a performative work that was in the tradition of 1960s musical “happenings.” Afterwards, several individuals who identify as “performance artists” complained about the length, “boring” nature and “irrelevance” of the work. My demeanour was tested as I had often thought the exact same of their practice, and wondered at their blinders in walking out of the piece, when they’d often attempted to shame viewers who had tried to flee their own exercises in ego….

Returning to The Square. What the character Oleg (portrayed by Terry Notary) does, for a performance work at a fancy gala at the X Royal Museum transcends all that garbage.

It’s not surprising that the promotional images for the movie have been Oleg atop a table, looking aggressively Simian. His physical posture asserts he owns the room and anyone within it (as he demonstrates, pushing it further and further, rapaciously). What begins as the usual “art” that toys with transgression and discomfort escalates into true violence. Again, reality and film collide and merge: this piece is a reinterpretation – in homage – to Oleg Kulik’s various works where he has, in the role of a dog, been known to bite gallery goers who ignored the warnings. In the larger issue of relational aesthetics that The Square offers, its worth noting that Kulik (the real Oleg as opposed to the film Oleg) states his “intention is to describe what he sees as a crisis of contemporary culture, a result of an overly refined cultural language which creates barriers between individuals.”

The manner in which the scene ends – is abruptly cut – leaves us wondering if it terminated with the ultimate act of murderous violence (by a righteously aroused mob, what Slavoj Žižek prosaically terms “divine violence”, where the reaction is immediate, unthinking and thus “pure”). The thin veneer of society, as exemplified by this moneyed, privileged gathering, erodes at this artistic scratching. 

This lack of clear resolution permeates The Square: in conversations, to conflicts, in how this is not the sole death  – or more exact, murder – that may have happened in The Square. We’re left to decide for ourselves what transpired here. In conversation, several people asserted that a disturbing sequence is due to the “ghost” of one of the “victims”….

This bring us around again to a “problem” with relational aesthetics: a failure of narrative consensus (“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” My apologies: T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is a poem I love and is often in my mind).

The tagline (both for the movie, and the artwork in the film from which the name is taken) is how “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

This wasn’t true to my experience of (the film) The Square. I’d cite, more accurate to my impression, an artwork that curator Christian demonstrates to his two daughters. A gallery visitor, to gain entry to a show, must push one of two buttons. One declares that you trust people, while the other states that you mistrust people. The LED displays on the wall keep count: those who trust are nearly fifty, and only three seemed comfortable enough to openly declare their cynicism for humanity.

But the exhibition (based on the detritus and protective covers), indicates its not yet been opened to the public. The numbers are thus false: and I found myself wondering if the “mistrust” numbers were to encourage honesty (so you needn’t be the “only” one to doubt), or if the numbers were presented to force a more positive, hopeful facade (people are exponentially more trusting, “people are essentially good” but civilisation corrupts, as Rousseau would say. But flouting this is the opening sequence where Christian has his phone and wallet stolen in a grift that is unique enough to demand respect, and that plays on trust. However, we find out later he also assumed his cuff-links were taken, and they were not. For a moment in the narrative you wonder how reliable his recounting of his experience is…do we “trust” Christian, or “distrust” him?).

The Square offers us hints, but not resolution; narratives but no conclusion. In some ways, its a different story constructed from the same components as The Florida Project. Both offer truth and artifice, allusion and honesty. I plan to watch them both again.


The Square and The Florida Project were both on view at the Film House in the Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in January of 2018. Many thanks to the staff of both the Film House and Niagara Artist Centre who have a strong hand in programming films unavailable elsewhere in Niagara. The upcoming schedule can be seen here.

The Garden City Food Co Op: An ending, or a stepping stone?

There’s no one factor definitively at fault for the demise of the four years’ dream that was the Garden City Food Co Op, attempting to remedy the “food desert” in downtown St. Catharines . As with most community endeavours, there were factors that were more pervasive (and part of the larger ongoing “landscape” of Niagara) and others that may have been preventable, and were unique to this situation.

I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him; the ill he did lives after him, the good is interred with his bones. This is not flippant facetiousness but to indicate that some of the “ills” demonstrated here – volunteer burnout, for example – are evident in other organizations, other Niagara groups both social and cultural. Many groups run on the blood of the same overlapping pool of volunteers. That was clear in the makeup of the Garden City Food Co Op [GCFC] from the beginning (in 2013), with its board bearing connections and histories with various groups past and present in the region. It’s also clear in how the AGMs ebbed from several hundred in attendance, at early meetings, to barely making quorum in the final one on May 28, 2017, when dissolving the group.

I’ve been encountering a cynicism from many individuals whom purchased memberships and feel that they received nothing for their contribution. In conversation with several board members, it was explained that the $120 membership fee was spent on staff and other clearly demonstrable expenses (such as research that is currently being used by City Hall in hopes of luring a bigger box grocery store to the downtown). There were also “sponsored memberships” to ensure groups and individuals that were essential to the GCFC’s mandate were included, and represented. One board member cited that there is a misunderstanding about what collectives might hope to accomplish, in terms of long term goals, and that immediate gratification wasn’t the goal, but to effectively and deeply alter the “food desert” of the downtown. There was a plethora of enthusiasm from the board, but not necessarily a match of experience. And the history of the collective – and the divisions and tensions that happened in choosing the downtown site – also demonstrated that there wasn’t a unanimity of vision and focus that may have worked against the eventual success of the GCFC.

Several determinants need to be cited, as cumulative speed bumps that eventually derailed GCFC’s momentum; the less than ideal timeline of the capital campaign, due to delays in approval from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (a six month period to raise $500,000 proved impossible); the developer, Nick Atalick, seemingly forgetting – or not being reminded – of his commitment to the GCFC, amid his desire to ‘revitalize’ the downtown with a condo project in the designated GCFC site, which surely euthanized an already crippled fundraising initiative; issues around communication / miscommunication with invested (or hoped to be so) groups; and aforementioned volunteer burnout.

Several of these raise further questions: was the Commission’s decision expected or avoidable – a roundabout way of asking if this was an error on the part of the GCFC or simply an unpleasant hoop (that any of us who’ve worked with nonprofits, collectives, etc., are familiar with) that had to be “jumped through?” Atalick’s proposal to city hall in April of 2016 was the first time that the GCFC was made aware of his condo “dreams” for the downtown; was this a lack of communication, a lack of oversight, or, to paraphrase another GCFC board member, was Atalick just flush with his own ideas of how to “revitalize” the downtown? Whether this constitutes a breach of trust is another matter to consider (or whether this is a variation on how renters are victims of the whims of owners).  The emergency meetings that followed Atalick’s bombshell saw the members just barely vote to rethink and reform what they’d planned, but by a nearly even split. One board member commented that, in retrospect, it might have been a cleaner, or more direct, end of the GCFC than allowing it to languish to a slow death, with no interest or activity from volunteers to rebuild….

This is as good a place in this difficult story to point out that the downtown has been in flux, often flailing about for simple solutions to a complex problem (whether in the push for a grocery store downtown, condos – though with Toronto and Port Dalhousie as lessons, that one’s specious – or the MIWSFPA) since before most of us were born, and shows no signs of resolving.

Poverty suffuses this debate, returning to the previously quoted community gardener.  Its pervasive (if unacknowledged) in STC, whether the working poor or those hanging by fingernails on the ledge of tenacious employment. That the space for the GCFC was to be displaced for condos also beggars where the civic politicians and leaders were in this debate, and whether the lip service from that quarter is also a contributing factor in the GCFC’s end….That the landscape of downtown St. Catharines has changed dramatically from the inception of the GCFC can’t be denied, either, whether we term it gentrification or revitalization, whether an opportunity or a displacement.

Some have said the GCFC should have modelled itself more on the Rutabagga Collective, a 1970s collective  that had smaller goals: but that group also was volunteer dependant, and had a fluidity that eventually contributed to its dissolution, in trying to accomplish less (or “more realistically”, edit as you will).

But this is also that great arrogant beast, hindsight. When the “rethink” process was taking place over the last few months, volunteer engagement and involvement was much less than needed or hoped: as available funds had already been spent, there was no staff or website to further this process…the rethink process failed as many GCFC members were too spent, and too deflated, to begin again.

In Buffalo, or Welland, there are successful groups of this ilk, serving members and the communities. So why not here?  Applying these questions to another site: my future updates on Rodman Hall will be exploring whether the community is willing – and thus able – to support the space, or if it will fall to the inertia and lethargy that many complain is Niagara. Or, quoting another board member, they “just learned what you need to know for next time.” A “common purpose” foundation has been laid.

It’s worth noting that the same day that I began to seriously sink my teeth into this article, I had to make a run down to the Market in downtown STC; seeking peas and strawberries for my father, a supplement to his weekly shopping. The quantity and quality of what was there, on a Tuesday afternoon, was significant. I could have purchased the same thing from several vendors, all of excellent – and local – quality.

One of the board members I spoke with indicate that their heart is broken at its failure, but would try it again, in a moment….to return to the Shakespearean quote at the beginning, will the good accomplished be forgotten, or built upon?

Of all the issues here, the most important is the most obvious: what next? Is this an ending, or a stepping stone?

This was an enterprise that was (is) positive – and necessary – in many ways. Is this dead, now? Who’s stepping in or stepping up to revitalize this? Or will people complain without commitment or offer nothing but critique without solutions? That’s not a question I can answer for you, Niagara. That one is up to you, you might say….

 

Happy Valentine’s Day…

…and, as I’ve said on Twitter, I won’t be going to see Fifty Shades of Grey but will re read Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil. I like my smut to be really pervery (it’s a word).

Amazingly enough, I may be doing it alone, but I am open to a reading date, ahem. But I have a tradition of making and sending Valentine’s cards every year. A friend talks about it here. So, in light of that, here’s this year’s version. Feel free to share and share alike and the image links to a larger version.

Valentine.2015

A Word / Spring 2014 Relaunch and Redesign

As some of you may have (hopefully) noticed, the blog and the site have been done for a little while, while I did some maintenance and transfer, and also used the opportunity to decide what the blog should, could and can be, as regards fostering debate about art in Saskatoon. So, in light of that I’ve “retconned” the blog to be from 2014 onwards and will be looking to explore a few more topics and ideas that intersect with Saskatoon’s “site of contested narratives”. Hence there is now a category specifically labeled “Politics”, so that should be interesting, in light of this place and my own, and its own, histories….

There are several people to thank: Troy Gronsdahl, who is to credit or blame for the original incarnation of the A Word, and supplying support both technical and moral. It is funny to remember the conversation at Alexanders years ago that led to all this…

Enjoy. And suggestions, input and other ideas are always welcome.