(Dedicated to Desmond and Jamie)
“I pretended to be someone I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me.” (Cary Grant)
As you can tell from my name, I am a pop culture construct. I’m no Cary Grant but I did try to follow his advice and can testify that acting like a star can make people doubt their own eyes and think, “hmm, maybe he is…” You exist for as long as you have an audience. This is true of all culture: it’s a social contract to treat images and words as truth, at least for a while. In fact, the self you construct is often more convincing than the ‘real’ one. The image, the icon, steals the reality of what it portrays.
The pick of this year’s Aesthetica Short Film Festival featured such representations that eclipsed what they represented. When does a word/image/idea become a thing? David Cameron tells you ‘when it’s posted on social media’. Cultural critics snort ‘when I say so!’ Pop culture coos ‘when you believe it, baby’ and this husky voice is the one most people listen to. We all know that films and books and TV shows are fiction and yet choose to invest our time and emotions. We permit ourselves to be seduced.
Films are particularly seductive. In the way a pop star’s polygamous gaze seems just for you, cinema is a strangely private pleasure even though we sit together to do it. Nothing encapsulated this bewitching better than Alfonso Diaz’s 2A (2012), about a kohl-eyed starlet who arrives late for an audition and convinces the protagonist and the watching audience that she only has eyes for them (me!). She symbolises the power of film: “I want to be your muse…seduce you when I look at you…” And when we have given ourselves up to the illusion, she destroys it: “So, how did I do? Did I get the part? You haven’t really fallen in love, have you?” Yes, coquette, we did. We wanted her acting to be real, and so it was.
“Seduction cannot be represented,” said celebrity philosopher Baudrillard, meaning that you can’t show it without doing it. It stops being the image of the thing and becomes the thing itself, like in Nicholas Paton’s Candid (2011), where a photographer stalks her boyfriend and records his affair. She photographs herself looking at the photos, and literally dissolves into the 2D prints. The photographs’ seductive reality overpowers her own and she becomes pure image. ‘If I do not exist in my own right, then what exactly am I?’ asks the Baudrillard-referencing Siren (2012), suspended naked in water for our viewing pleasure. The seduced actualise the seducer, and vice versa. The critic validates the film; the fans validate the star; the audience validates the art. But whose reality takes precedent?
“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun,” – there is a guerilla war going on between high art and pop culture, between the (Mark) Kermode’s and the Kardashians of this world. As became clear in Friday’s Panel Discussion on Film Criticism, culture is itself a loaded weapon. Curzon Cinemas Programmer & Artificial Eye Acquisitioner Jason Wood is a Professional Curmudgeon in the mould of Victor Meldrew, who conflates culture with High Culture, so it cannot by definition be ‘appreciated’ by the masses. For Jason, Skyfall joins the Carry Ons as the worst of a non-culture of ignorant consumption. When Little White Lies Editor Matt Bochenski stepped in, it became clear this was a post-plebgate debate defending different realities, those of Old v New Guard.
There is something offensive about art & criticism that denies or scoffs at the world of pop. Celebrity culture in particular may look like a sitting diamante duck, but its brand of reality is potent. Mark Davenport’s satirical Photoshopping (2011) features a frump who cuts & pastes herself into photos of stars to borrow their aura, killing a reporter who threatens to expose her faked reality. The implied message: people who worship celebrities are deranged dupes. Inverting the Photoshopping plot, critics do not allow themselves to be seduced without murdering the seducer. They are the gatekeepers to an exclusive critical reflexivity, and this is why mainstream culture’s hedonism is kryptonite to their power (like Superman, they try to keep it out of sight). This essentialism does no-one any favours: Art in pop and mediocrity in art both go unacknowledged. Matt Greenhalgh, voice of Madchester, has no time for navel-gazing. His screenwriting masterclass was peppered with expletives and drug references, and his scripts have created enduring revisionist biopics that straddle high/pop culture.
When High Art is good, it approaches the power of pop. Pretty & deceptively dark Umbral (Guillermo Gómez Puentes, 2012) depicts a chilled out hunk enjoying a lovely boat trip to Hades, a suicide whose refuge from life is destroyed by the approaching wails of the baby he is to be reincarnated in. Thomas Tait showcase Bon (2011) starring Noomi Rapace was under 2 minutes long yet epic in scope, fusing star aura with camply juxtaposed cliché’s: erotic black stallions and Alan Watts’ quivery existentialism. But a famous face is not always enough; vampire studmuffin Stephen Moyer plays the OCD psycho archetype in Perfect, notable only because we got to see his willy (for all its porn-chic, True Blood drew the line at boy bits). Other standouts demonstrated the power of minimal dialogue: Fellini-chic Sea Meadow (Lily Baldwin, 2011); zombie flash musical Savage (Lisa Jackson, 2009); and sex/death drama Still Early (Gerard Leonard, 2011).
ASFF’s strength lies in inclusivity. A cornucopia of films from a multitude of places screened in buildings usually out of bounds- political HQs, Masonic quadrangles, Tudor banqueting halls, university lecture theaters. The festival’s USP is York itself, ASFF’s pop-up aesthetic perfectly complementing the boutique city.
I’m going to sign off with a promise I made to two homeless guys I met on the streets of York. If reality is made up of representations, relentlessly papped celebrities accumulate a superhuman presence. At the other end of the scale are the invisibles: homeless, incarcerated, committed and under-represented. I wonder if they feel like Marty McFly when his photo dissolves. There I go again confusing fiction with reality, but it can be argued that the purpose of culture is to populate our reality with collective fictions we agree to believe in. When I told a homeless guy I was a reviewer, he pointed to his friend and said “I’m Desmond. Remember us, Desmond & Jamie. Say something about us.” The act of writing criticism, like the making of the film it responds to, expresses ideas so they become things. Desmond’s request demonstrates the power of representation and it is this that lies at the heart of ASFF’s celebration of short film.
For more information visit www.asff.co.uk
words Vienna Famous – The Secret Diary of a Former Failed Celebrity: http://viennafamous.wordpress.com/