Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 7:30pm
Leslie Thornton's Adynata + Abigail Child's Mayhem

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Adynata, Leslie Thornton, 1983, 16mm, 30 mins
Mayhem, Abigail Child, 1987, 16mm, 20 mins

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), one of the most widely read treatises on the nature of film, is often summarized as a critique of classical Hollywood's system of the gaze. But it must also be remembered as a call to action. “The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked,” Mulvey urges. “The alternative is thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire.” Understanding how images dominate us is not enough; artists must then propose heretofore unseen structures through which their powers might be diverted towards other ends.

Three elements served as the basis for Leslie Thornton’s Adynata: a portrait photograph of an elite Chinese couple, taken in 1861 by “M. Miller;” her reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism; and a definition of the word adynata taken from A Handbook of Rhetorical Terms as “a stringing together of impossibilities; sometimes a confession that words fail us.” Around these nodes Thornton constructs a whirling array of signifiers whose combinations veer between uncomfortably direct (Thornton herself in cross-racial drag, unidentified video of a ritual dancer set to Bow Wow Wow’s “(I’m a) TV Savage”) and recalcitrantly opaque. Black-and-white found footage of a spinning globe leads into color images of a botanical greenhouse, lurching erratically off a stable tripod view; a lone comet-like light streams across a red sky; flowers blossom in accelerated time, paired with dialog from a Japanese film; purple-tinted waves undulate while a voice whispers nonlinguistic burblings.

“The colors are extremely vivid and work to amplify what at first glance appears to be an unruly fetishism of the exotic object. There is too much for the eye—the film seemingly capitulates to the seductive force of visual pleasure,” Mary Ann Doane has observed. “For Thornton, the discourse of Orientalism is precisely a discourse of excess, of hyperbole, of the absurd. In Adynata she investigates the mise-en-scène of Orientalism—the conglomeration of sounds and images which connote the Orient for a Western viewer/auditor.”

Towards the end of Adynata—which the filmmaker originally subtitled Murder Is Not a Story—Thornton inserts the final, fatal moments of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, unfocused in such a way that human figures against the snow become wispy specters in motion. This confluence of cinema with death becomes one of the exhumed subtexts of Abigail Child’s Mayhem, which like Truffaut's movie pilfers from the conventions of noir to develop its visual style. Appropriately monochrome, Mayhem is a film filled with girls and guns, expressionist lighting cut through venetian blinds, and a brooding male starlet, played out in the rubble and on the rooftops of downtown New York. The tropes of the crime film remain, erotic and violent, their narrative underpinnings distilled into a series of disassociated looks and actions. “Mayhem is a deeply kinetic work, one in which the images slip from the viewer’s grasp before she or he can fully register them—a strategy which heightens their subliminal apprehension, their capacity for slippage and deferred action,” Liz Kotz writes. "Rather than attempting to separate out pleasure and danger—or ‘lesbian’ and ‘straight’ fantasies—what is frightening or pathologized becomes reworked as sources of excitement and arousal. In this messy nexus of fear and desire, the film’s densely layered and surgical editing strategies are designed to open up what is seamless.”

Adynata and Mayhem, two crucial works of experimental film from the 1980s, pursue a radical aesthetic agenda not merely on the level of content, but of form. They stand as living, moving arguments for a film language that is not only critical but generative. Rejecting all manner of constricting binaries—East and West, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual—this is not merely a deconstruction of cinema but its reconstruction. “Film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms,” Mulvey notes in the final lines of her essay. “Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret.”

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.