The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007) sits on the precipice between public art, mass culture and entertainment. Screened on its US début as a public art project by Creative Time, admission to the film was free and heavily attended. In our era of the $11 film tickets, free cinema makes for the tanta-lizing possibility of populism, offering a healthy dose of culture to a downtown New York art audience. Directed by Eve Sussman, and made in collaboration with The Rufus Corporation, a loose collaborative of musicians, dancers and other players, it did not disappoint. At 82 minutes long Sussman’s Rape … is a lush, strange spectacle: video art-cum-film that basks in the cinematic glow of its own complexity, adding sumptuous, almost frilly, layer on layer of art-historical, popular and filmic references. It is easy to appreciate, even praise, Sussman’s know-it-all approach, but it can only be called kitsch couture, a highbrow, unironic presentation of sheer excess.
The critic of kitsch, Clement Greenberg, believed that art could substitute itself for the values that capitalism made valueless. Beginning with its original homage to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), which was already an interpretation of the creation story for the Roman empire, it appears that Sussman is offering the allegory of western decline via the road most taken, a path littered with Modernism’s greatest hits. Her Rape is purposefully blasé, re-envisioned as an operatic 1960s-era European period drama, replete with Eurocentric 1960s-era references, from the Italian Neo-Realist cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini to the percussive, stylized choreography of Pina Bausch’s war between the sexes.
Set to a score by Jonathan Bepler, bored women in sleeveless mod shifts and a pack of men in sunglasses and skinny ties converge on empty public spaces (airports, train stations) in the manner of West Side Story (1961), but without the emotional intensity or fervour that such congregations of violence normally induce. The scenes are carefully negotiated and proudly lavish, closer in presentation to a Sam Taylor-Wood photograph than a Nan Goldin-like documentation of suffering. The Sabine women are plucked from open-air markets and forced into poolside submission. Rape is implied, underscored by a brood of equally languid children, in the most luxurious setting possible: a Modernist, International-Style glass house perched on the cliffs above the Aegean. The long-anticipated finale is a highly stylized ‘rape’ scene that reenacts David’s image (which depicted abduction, and not rape in the modern sense of the word), an orgiastic frenzy of figures where men and women tumble in arresting positions, and everyone sweats through their sheer clothing. In the 12-minute sequence I was able to count only one pair of naked breasts, which made it feel more like a chaste knock-off of Carolee Schneemann’s seminal performance work Meat Joy (1964).
According to Greenberg, kitsch is the sign of the bourgeoisie trying to dissolve its own identity, which in turn becomes an instant assimilation and avoidance of difficulty. Kitsch, then, becomes a vicarious, mechanical experience, filled with false sensation. To be sure, there are many such moments of beauty in Rape …, but they all seem undercut by simulation: the startling and frequent use of the jump-cut to induce disorientation; the repetition of behind-the-scenes shots where the camera crew is visible; a strange and provocative soundtrack, complete with a coughing chorus, which initially seems to come from the audience itself. It is exactly these false sensations that Sussman seems to be after, born of the intense desire for supreme artistic control, where each moment is so choreographed as to become mannered like a Robert Wilson production, in which repetition always gives way to psychosis or the narcissism of the players, who are too bound to process to be bothered with theatricality or actual sensuality. Sussman is good at process because she is good at deconstructing the cultural forms and tropes of High Modernist art production. And if taken as process-oriented, the film works because it conjures the tedium and endurance endemic to Structuralist film (again, the 1960s).
It is not the lavishness of intention but rather the lavishness of plot that seems questionable: Sussman isn’t a storyteller, she’s an essayist, and when the camera pans slowly over lifeless meat at the marketplace, she is good the way Louise Lawler is good, in the most cerebral form of visuality, through crazy juxtapositions such as a wolf pacing the courtyard of a museum. Indeed, negation is a perfectly respectable, inherent and recurring theme within the Modernist project, but a little humour never killed anyone. Even Ad Reinhardt drew cartoons.