Steve McQueen's compulsive four minute film Deadpan (1997) makes a case for how multi-layered, fascinating and complex a short film can be.
Thanks to the fortuitous positioning of a window, McQueen survives Buster Keaton's famous gag sequence in Steamboat Bill Jnr. (1928) where the side of a house collapses on top of the hapless Keaton again and again. Each time his survival is filmed from a different angle. But whereas Keaton ran through a windstorm in Steamboat, in Deadpan McQueen doesn't move. He may be inviting us to give in to a temptation to privilege the social and documentary role of black art, but is also presenting us with a gag and a compelling study in purgatory more economical than Nauman's Clown Torture (1986). An establishing shot near the beginning of the film reveals that McQueen's boots have no laces, as though he is in detention overnight with the possibility of suicide taken away. Deadpan may look like someone compulsively revisiting a trauma, but McQueen doesn't look like the usual performance artist - standing like a tall and stoic prisoner surrounded by collapsing walls, he is too massive and unblinking, while the flickering, repetitive optical experience is dense, chest-tightening and fleshy.
Drumroll (1997), a video triptych, was shot in New York, along the pavements of high rent districts. Pushing along a barrel mounted with three cameras, McQueen's occasional calls of 'sorry, sorry' are audible above the street's roar. Again, there is a doubletake of dislocation in McQueen's performance. As if the almost invisible presence of the service classes that grease the mechanism of America's cities have been made visible, McQueen wears a stand-out pink coat, like a ringmaster. There are magical instances when interiors of mirrored electrical goods stores are transformed into kaleidoscopes by the rolling cam, but like a relentless drum role, it doesn't stop churning for an excruciating 25 minutes. But unlike Dan Graham's Body Press (1970-72) or Michelangelo Pistoletto's Performance Globe (1968), this work doesn't grow with time. Whereas Pistoletto's work accumulated imprints and junk from the street, McQueen's object is jarring and uninvolved. McQueen experimented with the camera-centric shot in his 1997 Documenta work Catch, but unfortunately it's a technique which has been exploited just as rigorously by David Letterman's monkey-cam.
Exodus (1992-97), a one minute film shot on Super 8, shows two middle-aged black men weaving through crowds carrying a potted palm from the Columbia Road flower market to board a bus to Clapton Ponds. In the final seconds of the film they wave at the camera. It is a simple, hand held piece, but pierced through with a nostalgic feeling of exile.
McQueen is establishing a thoughtful language of film, built from the most discreet and historical elements, which hang awkwardly between elaborations of Structuralist film theory and the polemic of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Consequently, the chromed children's roundabout, White Elephant (1998), a polished fetish object, can be read as a homage to the Zoetrope and the earliest moments of seeing film, but also a tense childhood memory resituated in a pink room. As the roundabout turns, viewers are refracted and captured in the mirror effect of the chrome, a Duchampian optical instrument for a pre-school. Nearby, a brick wall topped with broken glass completes the atmosphere of an unsettled urban playground, but thanks to the visitor's good taste, the permitted graffiti is perfunctory.
The 55 photographs in McQueen's 'Barrage' sequence (1997) chronicle a different, less interesting direction for the artist. The abject rolls of carpet that Parisian street sweepers lay out in the gutters to redirect their streams of water probably have their heritage in Atget's depopulated scene-of-the-crime streets, and could have found a place in the 1996 'Informe' show, but their weak anecdotal quality pales alongside some of the strongest film work around.