Some film museums I have known

Some Film Museums I Have Known, produced by Sydney theatre company RhubarbRhubarb, is an effects laden journey into the stutter created in the cycle of referentiality.

Paula works in a film museum, endlessly introducing a video of the Lumière brothers explaining the history of film to us, the audience. There is a dovetail; while Paula explains to us her film script using a variety of props and projection equipment, as well as the novel use of portable spy cameras, Louis Lumière, the sickly identical twin of August, is disintegrating into the pixelated feedback of video. Their endless loop of information on the birth of cinema, what was supposed to be insurance towards their survival, falls apart. Paula, her existence posited on her film script, even if it’s only in her head, unravels also at the discovery of her film, already made, shot for shot, in her local video store.

The recounting of Paula’s film takes up the body of the work. To a receptive audience she recounts an absurd action film, filled with the clichés and outlandish twists that any self respecting Hollywood blockbuster is bound to have.

There was one point in the recounting of this film that I stopped and wondered why we were laughing. Were we laughing at the slack jawed Paula, at the deadpan recounting of her terrible film? Laughing in recognition of the clichés and tropes that she was reeling out as if for the first time? Sitting there you found yourself flickering, asking if Paula was sharing these clichés with you, a riff of recognition, a conversation in referentiality, or if she was evoking these tropes in an act of destruction, the actions named and shamed, no one daring to repeat them from that point onwards.

As we laughed at these tropes the framework of Paula’s existence slowly crumbled, reflected in the tenuous trackwork of the camera train, the increasingly distorted presence of Louis Lumière, the relegation of Paula’s film onto the video store shelf. You feel as if, since these cinematic crimes had been named, or at least referenced, that some sense of feeling would come out of Paula’s performance. That, when she discovers her entrapment in her own simulacrum there would be a sense of loss or tragedy or, well, that there would be an emotional endpoint to the piece. This is touched on by August Lumière, in his attempt to carry on alone inside the museum’s video loop, but Paula simply fades into the background of the innovative technology used. Not everything must have an emotional core, but there is a reason why these film references, boldly typed out on the program, were shared with the audience, why we as an audience knew what films Paula was referring to. Surely our absorption of these texts was not to have a back catalogue of conversation, surely all of these references mean something to us, surely we have some emotional connection to them. This side of the hyper-referentiality of the piece was left wanting, however.

Some Film Museums I Have Known is not about the emotional, connective content, rather the technological possibility of creating moving pictures. Story, as with technology, the scientific creation from a formula. It was a great piece to move forward from, but as a result it left me feeling a little cold about what it wanted to say.

Some Film Museums I Have Known

Performance • May 19 – 22
ACMI, Studio 1, Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI), Federation Square, Melbourne
Duration: 1 hour
Price: $15 Full, $13 Concession

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Below sea level

In the Californian desert, thousands of miles from the built up cities that spat them out, is Slab City, a community of homeless people living out of their vans and cars, attempting to blot themselves out on the surreal desert landscape. Below Sea Level documents their lives and how, despite their best efforts, it becomes impossible to completely submit to the loneliness so many people think they desire.

Filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi follows seven members of Slab City over a period of five years, each living with their trucks, vans, tents and, most importantly, their dogs. Each has experienced a rupture that has brought them to this place, to their day to day existence that is punctuated by the tentative gestures of their fellow inhabitants.

Rosi’s style falls into an increasingly prevalent school of documentary filmmaking, emphasising unobtrusive observation. You never see the film crew, or hear their voices. There is no narration, no commentary, no summation of the disparate reasons these people have arrived at such a place. It is an exercise in patience and reflection – no questions from the filmmaker-as-protagonist, no purposeful teasing out of stories that have brought the subjects’ lives to this point, and by denying that sort of narrative, the piece has a certain sense of calm to it.

Not that this film is easy to watch. The lives that are followed have a certain ritualised, and ultimately positive, behaviour to them. Kenneth, or ‘Bus Kenny’ as he is known, is in an ongoing renovation battle with his old school bus, trying to connect with ‘the Doctor’, a recently divorced woman who is struggling with her new homeless identity. David, the ‘water guy’ drives his truck full of water around to the inhabitants, selling it to those who need it. ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘Insane Wayne’ form a booze addled relationship that swings between tender and unstable in seconds. Cindy, an ex-Navy transwoman, shakily starts a salon out of the back of her RV, her fragility essentialising the existence of the desert dwellers, all functioning in their own way, defying a final judgment on their lives. And all through Mike Bright, spending his nights alone in his caravan, writes a ballad of the citizens of Slab City.

The dogs in this film deserve a mention in themselves. They are essential companions to most of the desert inhabitants; where people have failed them, their pets have not. The Pet Cemetery is a landmark in an otherwise arid landscape, people gather to scatter the ashes of their old dogs, and otherwise spiky characters are seen to coo and cuddle over new litters.

The slow pace of this film may put some people off, but I found that the expansive and gentle approach laid out the documentary subjects in whatever way they wanted. There was no pounding political commentary to their stories – unless they themselves wanted to provide it. This lack of commentary by Rosi meant that their stories weren’t turned into causes, highlighting their pain for the ‘greater good’. The overarching reminder was that, despite allowing these cameras, these strangers, into their lives, they were in the desert for a reason, coping as best they could with either a system that had let them down, or a series of life events from which it is sometimes impossible to rebound.

Slab City


By: Gianfranco Rosi

Runtime: 110 min

Genre: Documentary

Country: USA | Italy

Language: English

Venice Film Festival 2008 – Winner Best Documentary
Cine du Reel Paris 2008 – Winner Grand Prix
DFA 2009 – Official Selection
One World 2009 – Official Selection
Nododoc Festival 2009 – Official Selection

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