‘The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art and for cinema as popular entertainment.’
-Susan Sontag 1
‘From the beginning the question of aesthetics is always a non-dialogue between those who subscribe to the conditioned world order and those who stand to gain from a reconstructed forum.’
- Clyde Taylor 2
In responding to Sontag’s recent mourning of cinephilia, one reader noted that there was, in fact, a new wave of cinema, but it was coming from places as diverse as Iran, Burkina Faso and Taiwan. Another reader trumpeted the American indies - Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch. Sontag and most moving image theorists have conveniently overlooked the new spaces where cinephilia is rearing its many hued faces. For them, Hollywood and its disciples have hijacked the very nature of film. But it’s worth remembering that its sheer joy lies in the medium itself, not in the style of medium, the cultural signifying with which the medium plays so easily, or the sociological implications of the existence of a medium with such massive powers of dissemination. The primal charismatic strength of film is the subconscious lull one’s mind enters upon remaining still and watching moving images swim by. Steve McQueen has discovered this power and it plays a prime role in the multi-faceted agenda his work suggests. At the heart of this discovery is an elevation which predates the medium and is commonly referred to as art.
At 26 years of age, McQueen has completed a trilogy of short films which succeed both due to their critical timeliness and a quality that serenely transcends fashion. The first and third films, Bear (1993) and Stage (1996), serve as bookends for the second film, Five Easy Pieces (1995). In Bear we are presented with a pas de deux of two black men (Vernon Douglas and McQueen) engaged in what is either a combative wrestling scenario or a homoerotic mating sequence. Two decidedly anti-Mapplethor-pean black men circle each other in an enclosed space. Gradually, the subjects’ nudity becomes a paean to the power of the erotic, and this sublime sexuality extends the film’s ambiguity while the pacing and editing further serve to question the viewer’s reading. The camera traces different elements - a side glance from one subject, pursed lips, a slow motion pan through the space between the legs. If one of the most important (but dull) discussions of the past few years has centred on the meaning of the black male body, on this matter Bear remains coy. The work is able to serve as fodder for the intellectual debates around issues of race and gender without ever offering a directive which would suggest a definitive statement. Perhaps the work is questioning whether the black male body has to signify anything at all.
Before viewing Stage, I wondered if Bear could be interpreted as a simple process of reclaiming the black nude. Cultural critic Judith Wilson went in search of nudes by 19th century black artists and discovered only three which were not of children too primitive to be clothed. While the construction of a future history is painfully important, it is also bound to be almost callously didactic. Bear avoids this both through its eroticism and by presenting a code of blackness that is circuitous; a blackness undefined by whiteness. It is in Stage that McQueen poses the question: Do I feel blackest when standing against a sharp white background? Two actors, a black man (McQueen himself) and a white woman (actress Margaret Kinnon) seem to be stalking each other but never meet. Their inquisitive glances could imply that they are pursuing each other, but could also suggest that they are just looking. Much like all theories that have placed race in a binary discourse, it is the viewer whose own subjectivity is called into question. McQueen has an answer for the viewer. Interspersed through Stage are tight close-ups of the artist’s own arse, its hole at the centre of the screens.
This biting distaste for the presupposed critical discourse of his work accentuates the inherently problematic relationship between theory and art. As artist Lorraine O’Grady once asked, ‘In Western ontology, why does somebody always have to win?’ 3 Nature/ Culture, Body/Mind, Sexuality/Intellect: these dualities don’t even begin to engage with what we sense in a non-linear fashion. By placing himself in Bear and Stage without making the works revolve around his presence, McQueen discards the straitjacket of theoretical discourse in favour of a character who is tantalisingly resistant to non-aesthetic theory. What draws us into Stage is not the Black/White, Male/Female dichotomies, but the seductive movement of the work itself. McQueen’s films could never be mistaken as a product of the over-edited MTV Generation: while the viewer has enough time to digest every image, there is no stagnation. Each film is also permeated with a haphazard sense of repetition, and the camera angles, although coy, rarely draw too much attention to themselves.
While Bear and Stage are as much about the artist as the body in general, Five Easy Pieces represents McQueen’s foray into the wonderment of film itself. This film, the middle component of the trilogy, concerns motion. It is comprised of several discrete elements. In one, a wire bisects the screen, its length assuredly traced by a foot: shot from underneath, the viewer is given pause to reflect on issues of gravity and tension. In another, we see the upper body of the tightrope walker herself. Others include an aerial shot of five men hula-hooping and a lower torso shot from the floor upwards of a man fondling himself through his skivvies. The velocity of the foot on the rope is contrasted with the shimmying motion of the bodice worn by the tightrope walker. The motion of the hula-hoopers is juxtaposed with the speed of the editing itself. All of these frames are extremely composed, and the beautiful restraint of the filmmaker is such that the viewer may not even notice. For anyone who may think that they have a theoretical underpinning of the work at hand, McQueen backs off again. The man in the frame pulls out his penis and pees directly onto the camera, making beautiful ripples as the viewer realises that they have been watching these frames from the underside of a puddle.
The importance of the relationship between the viewer and the moving image cannot be underestimated, and this was one of Sontag’s prime grievances in her recent essay. ‘To see a great film on television isn’t to have really seen that film. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theatre, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.’ 4 McQueen’s pieces are generally projected onto a large wall in a gallery-type space which would provide a screening room effect if it weren’t for the fact that in art spaces, a highly polished floor adds a reflexive quality to the consummation of his work. Since the spaces usually seem cavernous when empty or filled with other media, the projection of film gives the spaces a delightful, eerie intimacy for which museums and galleries are not known.
Conversely, the movie theatre experience has been hijacked by commerce. Once the naive wonderment of film itself was no longer a novelty, the genre film arose to maintain the cultural addiction which was fomenting. The beauty of film in art spaces is that the viewer is unencumbered by that need for saccharine narrative: in a museum or gallery setting one can have a ‘film experience’ for ten minutes and move on, thereby returning the imperative to the work itself as opposed to the group catharsis which is the ruminative joy of going to the cinema. The irony is that while supposedly democratic commercial film requires the working class to consume the cultural production of the bourgeois, film in museum spaces seems to have no regard for the working class, although that is precisely the class from which many of its practitioners come. And as we contemplate, an eight foot black anus moves away with the camera tagging on behind. Slowly.
1. Susan Sontag, ‘The Decay of Cinema’, New York Times Magazine, 25 February, 1996.
2. Clyde Taylor, ‘Black Cinema in a Post-Aesthetic Era’, in Questions of Third Cinema, ed. Jim Pines and Paul Willeman, London: British Film Institute, 1989.
3. ‘Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity’ in New Feminist Criticism, New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
4. Sontag, ibid.
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