Friday, February 17, 2012

Cinema of Bodies/Cinema of Space

One of my New Year's resolutions was to keep my introductions for guest bloggers straight and to the point. I'm going to backslide just a tiny bit to mention that the new March-April calendar was released on the Pacific Film Archive website since my previous post. Now I'll turn over the floor to my friend Adam Hartzell:

The second weekend of this year's IndieFest has at least two treats in store. As I've talked about here on HoFB a couple of times, Judy Lieff's Deaf Jam was my favorite film from last year. And catching Deaf Jam once at the Mill Valley Film Festival was not enough for me. I plan to catch it again at one of the two screenings this weekend - Saturday 2/18 @ 12:30pm & Sunday 2/19 @ 5pm. (As a sort of thematic meal and a movie, I plan to finally try out Mozzeria, the Deaf-owned restaurant on Guerrero only a few block from the Roxie Theatre.) For those who didn't click through those hyperlinks to read my past posts here about Deaf Jam, it's a documentary that takes a wide focus on the importance of American Sign Language Poetry in Deaf culture while zooming in on one particular young Deaf poet, Aneta Brodski, an absolutely captivating subject. Besides matters specific to Deaf culture, the film also touches on immigration issues since Brodski came to the U.S. from Israel as a child and her parents only obtained their citizenship after she turned 18. As a result, she is left in legal limbo, something the DREAM Act, if finally enacted by Congress, would rectify. Add to this that Aneta's Hearing poet partner is a Palestinian-American, and you have yet another layer of politics packed into this engaging documentary.
Part of why Deaf Jam works so well on screen is because sign languages are visual languages. Sign languages are so perfect for cinema it's surprising how little we see it used in moving pictures. (Thankfully, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival is providing us another opportunity to see a moving language in a moving picture with Mina T Son's short Making Noise In Silence, part of the Roots and Reality short film series. Here's a link to an interview I did with Director Son, my last contribution to before it folded.) Along with the naturally cinematic language of the Deaf, Deaf Jam Director Lieff also credits her dance background as helping her frame scenes in particular ways because she saw choreography in ASL Poetry performances. Perhaps this is what led Lieff to be comfortable leaving one moment of ASL Poetry un-translated, trusting the body to tell the tale.
And multiple bodies tell the tale in the full-on dance extravaganza that closes out IndieFest this year, Jacob Krupnick's Girl Walk // All Day, basically a long-form video for the album All Day by Girl Talk. Although certain dance segments in the wider narrative might drag at points, Girl Walk never fails to eventually turn a corner to re-engage you in the conga line happening on screen. For example, I started to lose interest when one character is bouncing around Chinatown, but eventually she jumps on the scooter of the fan dancer and I'm back in the groove again. Creating a mash-up film to narrate a mash-up album is an idea as ingenious as it is dangerous. Girl Talk, aka Greg Gillis, is a mash-up artist straight out of Pittsburgh, PA who takes a ridiculous number of samples and juxtaposes hip hop with rock n' roll, pop, and punk to make collage albums that are greater than the sums of their parts. But what Girl Talk does is argued by some to be illegal, (Girl Talk's record label is in fact called 'Illegal Art'), since no clearance was sought for the samples from the original album and ergo the movie. If Krupnick tried to release Girl Walk in for-profit theatres, it would likely be prohibitively expensive to get clearance for the songs sampled and the songs the songs sampled are sampling. Girl Walk expands the possible illegality of art through the acts of guerrilla filmmaking portrayed in the film. Besides the moment one dancer is escorted out of Yankee Stadium, there are other instances where it looks like some security cops are on their way. From the credits, it appears that permission was asked at places like the Staten Island Ferry, but not every set was accessed with forewarning. Still others, like myself, would argue that Girl Talk, and now Girl Walk, falls under the Fair Use exemption for creative and scholarly works. And asking for permission to be creative or to engage in scholarship is not Fair Use. You don't need permission for Fair Use. You just do use it or risk losing it. (However, I'm not a lawyer, so don't take my word as bond. A great book that tries to sort out sampling practices and how copyright could change to facilitate creativity such as what we find in Girl Talk/Girl Walk along with providing reasonable remuneration for the creators of works other works are built upon, check out Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola's Creative Licence: the Law and Culture of Digital Sampling.)
Girl Walk's somewhat limited attempt at a story involves The Girl (Anne Marsen) who appears to want to get everyone to dance with her, The Creep (John Doyle) who wants to get with the girl, and The Gentlemen (Daisuke Omiya) who's the busker of the bunch and to whom The Girl seems to take a liking. Besides that skeleton of a story, this is just a dance performance that treats New York City like a playground, from the twirls on the High Line to tap-dancing on the bull outside of Wall Street. By dancing in these public, semi-public, and private spaces, and adding a new layer to these places through choreography, ownership of these spaces is brought into question. Just as Girl Talk's digital remixing challenges what is an original artwork and who owns what, Girl Walk creates something out of the accoutrements of these spaces. When Girl Talk meshes General Public's 'Tenderness' with hip hop lyrics that ain't so tender, both songs are deconstructed to be re-constructed into something new, something Girl Talk's own. And now the work of others works that make up Girl Talk's work is even further re-contextualized and newly owned, or re-possessed, in Girl Walk. They take on a new meaning through the bodies interacting with Girl Talk's songs in these spaces. Furthermore, because these dancers occasionally highlight areas like High Line and Madison Square, areas of New York City that have been re-appropriated from their prior uses (a train way and car lanes respectively) in order to expand the availability of public space available to NYC's citizens and visitors, these public spaces are yet further being re-designed by the bodies moving within them. There's even a scene in Girl Walk with a traceur. A traceur is a practitioner of the urban sport of Parkour where cities are used as makeshift obstacle courses. Since the first time a skateboarder afforded a new use for a stair handrail, nothing has re-thought how our bodies interact with our cities more than Parkour.
My enthusiasm for Girl Walk exhibited in the words I've typed here is more regarding its potential than it's execution. It's a totally fun film, but not a great film. Those who find that Girl Talk's albums lag at times will probably find the same flaw in the film. (Perhaps we here in San Francisco can make that better film by choreographing a Girl Walk sequel of sequential dances taking place throughout all the Parklets in San Francisco? May I suggest the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra do the soundtrack for our walk?) But it's still very much a film I want to start seeing more of. A film that celebrates the city and how citizens can re-format cities as places more friendly and supportive of our bodies than how they are presently designed for the exoskeletons of our cars and the free/cheap parking we demand to publicly store our private automobiles. To appropriate the recent words of Ellen when reacting to her haters, we need cities that value dance.

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