By Lauren Bliss
It’s difficult to capture and reproduce in words the precise feeling that is evoked when what’s visible in the world around you is coated in wall-to-wall advertisements, signs, and directive images. Whether at a train station, on a city street, or in a shopping mall there is something infectious about these signs in the way that they immediately cause you to reproduce what you see inside your head – what I guess we refer to as the act of reading and recognition. This is also the problem of spectacle; as Guy Debord suggests, it integrates itself into everything and produces the inescapable.
While filmmakers like John Carpenter will play on the latent messages behind these signs, such as in his science fiction classic They Live where magic glasses are worn by the hero to show how commercials intend to brainwash and unconsciously affect us, and others like the Dziga Vertov Group (Jean Luc Godard & Jean Pierre Gorin) harness techniques of defamiliarisation, distanciation, and the like to try and wake up the eyes from the banality of image saturation, few find beauty or meaning in the visual life of the strip mall, the suburban highway, the petrol station, the television commercial, or the supermarket. Roger Beebe, an American experimental filmmaker working primarily with 16mm and 8mm, is one exception to this rule in that he strips the conspiratorial and calculated agenda that marks so much of the practice of leftist filmmakers and instead evokes a sense of visual release to the banality and literality of the everyday.
Introducing his “Star Spangled to Death” in a 2009 lecture at the University of Michigan, fellow experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs commented on the importance of how a film addresses itself to the mind and imagination of the viewer. In particular, he signaled the need to treat the viewer as an equal – one who, to interpret his brief comment, is already privy to the same world of the filmmaker and is not somehow unaware or unknowing of the visible exploitation of the everyday.
Because the work of Beebe, who is an associate professor at Ohio State University, is on film and is comprised of multi-projector installations the screenings are singular events not easily reproducible. His work was recently screened in Melbourne at the Artist Film Workshop, which I was fortunate to attend. Sketching a brief review of some of the 10 films that were screened, I note that while each was distinctly American all still spoke to any eye that has been afflicted by the sight of public space awash with spectacle.
Money Changes Everything (2009/rev 2011) is a 3-projection 16mm film on Las Vegas. Evoking the threes reels of the slot machine, Beebe told us the work was about suicide and alienation. The hyper-alluring Vegas landscape that sets out to trap, toy with, and extort the money and imagination of its visitors is set in motion by Beebe’s three screens. The film doesn’t cast a condescending tone out of its critique of this literal and social desert; rather, like all of his work, it gazes out from within at its subject. This kind of gaze is particularly evident in the striking A Woman, A Mirror (2001, 16mm) made in collaboration with choreographer Sara L. Smith. The film figures female dancers with the movement of aeroplanes. A comment on the intersection of gender and technology, with the history of female pilots, the film layers the sound of jet engines with choreographed movements of a troupe of dancers. The body and flight are bought together to dance in a romantic, though melancholy, play of gender and machine enhanced by a soundtrack that includes Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again” and Françoise Hardy’s “Tous les garçons et les filles”.
In Strip Mall Trilogy (2001), a commentary on the words, signs and icons that blight the strip mall and highway, the camera traces and follows how the eye constructs pictures and makes sense of the suburban city. In the first section, images of number plates, petrol station signs, stickers, disability signs, and safety messages for pedestrians, punctuate the screen in rapid, swirling cuts to the click, beep and clack of the cashier’s scanner. The second section features the voice-over of a young girl singing the alphabet song while each letter, extracted and isolated from signs, follows in time with her song. In its cutting up and reassembly of visible suburbia this film brought to mind the experience of being very young when, just on the cusp of learning to read, I would make my own sense out of the signs, icons and images that littered the streets, city spaces, books and screens of my visual landscape. As a child, I had knowledge that these things meant something, but being too young to have yet had the education to decipher their meaning I would pretend – in my mind – to know what they meant and would create their message out of whatever I imagined. (Witnessing young children pretending to read a book out loud is maybe an example of the kind of thing I mean) To return to the film but to place this in other words, Strip Mall Trilogy – like the best examples of Beebe’s work – creates its own visual portrait out of those images that try to keep their meaning fixed and literal. Common signs like “Stop don’t walk”, “Pay here”, “Wrong Way: Go Back” or “Watch Your Step” are unhinged, disconnected and reconnected onto another visual plane. Beebe’s work is experimental in the fullest sense. These films require you to relax your eyes and see what is on screen in a kind of double vision, against the grain of what you think you’ve seen before.
Beebe’s play on the intersection between words and images is particularly dazzling in S A V E (2006), a film on a gas station sign literally called ‘Save’ that once graced a highway in Gainesville, Florida. The sight is dissected with close-up shots of its rusted steel pole grounded in cracked concrete, and the abandoned storefront that it hails. Each shot returns to the golden yellow sign with the word Save emblazoned in red. The petrol station, wanting to be saved, to help us save money, to save us from ourselves, to save the car from running out of fuel, is filmed as itself worth saving and remembering. It is carved out as singular, though lonely, banal and eccentric (like most gas stations in America always seem to be somehow). Beebe comments through voice over at the end that after he had finished filming and was driving away he saw in his rear view mirror that a few men had pulled over and were peeing on the sign. He asks himself (and his viewers) whether he had placed too much emphasis on what beauty he saw in such a place, second-guessing his vision of Save from the men who had seen it as only a place to pee. He then comments that he returned to the site at a later date, and realised that part of what he had originally filmed had disappeared for unknown reasons. As he tells us there is always something unique that film can capture and save out of, what otherwise asks to be looked upon as, an expected view.