BY Lisi Raskin in Reviews | 10 OCT 04
Featured in
Issue 86

Jonah Freeman

BY Lisi Raskin in Reviews | 10 OCT 04

There is something implicitly irritating about watching feature films that have been adapted to television. As commercial breaks interrupt the intended narrative flow, the whole experience becomes an arbitrarily abbreviated and inconclusive purgatory. This stuttering rhythm usually leads to feelings of agitation and cabin fever, the only logical remedy for which would be to switch off the television and go for a walk. But the allure of the screen and the effect of its hypnotic cadence are nearly impossible to escape, and so we find ourselves wasting yet another Sunday afternoon watching Scarface (1983) or American Gigolo (1980) on cable TV. Perhaps Jonah Freeman draws inspiration from a similar types of experience, since the characters in his film The Franklin Abraham (2004), who never seem to leave the gargantuan, dystopic megastructure they call home, appear to suffer from equal bouts of petulance and ennui.

Based on a novel by Zachary Shamban, the Franklin Abraham is Freeman’s name for a vast, futuristic and completely fictitious bit of property that houses over two million people, encompassing apartments, offices, manufacturing plants and casinos in an amalgamated sprawl that defies zoning codes and governmental ordinances. Architecturally speaking, the Franklin Abraham has the allure of an abandoned shopping mall whose great chambers are adorned with marble tiled columns, mirrored walls and gaudy chandeliers, all interconnected by a series of dank industrial rooms and passages of indeterminate function. The clashing array of interiors embodies the building’s imaginary 200 year history of continual construction and renovation, its styles meshing into a Postmodern hodge-podge lacking any overarching rhyme or reason. (Freeman shot most of the film in New York’s Municipal Building, an enormous Beaux-Arts skyscraper.)

Among the housing complex’s colourful inhabitants are authoritarian security guards, in-house newscasters and a gang of Orthodox Jewish toughs calling themselves the ‘Sons of Abraham’, who run an unspecified racket in a men’s loo-cum-clubhouse in the building’s subterranean spaces. From the opening moments of Freeman’s episodic 56 minute film it becomes clear that the bits of encountered narrative and overheard conversations testify to the multitude of disparate, and often banal, activities taking place within the structure. Dialogue remains obtuse and inconclusive, and what emerges is a linguistic and nomenclatural inventiveness that takes its cues from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962). The ‘Octaplatz’, for example, is a bar popular among the building’s inhabitants, ‘nannies’ are women who become objects of desire for self-loathing gangsters, while ‘The Bronze Age’ is some unspecified period in the building’s past for which two security guards share a certain nostalgia.

Using a cinematic tactic similar to Richard Linklater in his film Slacker (1991), Freeman often uses one character’s story to introduce another’s, in a narrative relay of staged interactions that progressively leads the viewer around different parts of the endless edifice. This piecemeal approach to story construction would be utterly disjunctive were it not for Sean McBride’s original soundtrack, whose hypnotic synthesized beats accompany the extended tracking shots illustrating the labyrinthine interconnections of the building’s superstructure.

Inhabited or vacant, these continuous fluorescent-lit transitions – analogous to TV commercial breaks – have a lulling effect absolutely essential to maintaining the filmic illusion, allowing you to connect a series of unrelated spaces. The moments that Freeman and McBride construct together provide the film’s most seamless and exciting moments. Reminiscent of trailer-length ads for video games, these imagined architectural zones and voids undermine the urge to empathize with the everyday life of any one character.

After an hour immersed in the filmic world of The Franklin Abraham, one stumbles out into an adjacent gallery space to find an installation of sculpture, advertisements, photographs and other ephemeral artefacts ‘recovered’ from this building-cum-city-state. CoreGuy (2004), a narrow gauntlet formed by tiered rows of oscillating fans, creates a persistent distorting aural drone. Automated track lighting simulates the deadening environment of the film, vacillating between dim and brightly fluorescent. Together these ambient elements enhance the illusion that the gallery space is located somewhere deep inside the gargantuan structure, its display of aggressive white noise providing some clue as to what is numbing and irritating the residents of the Franklin Abraham.