How did we come to this?

Liverpool Biennial 2008 One of the most technically brilliant short films ever made is Claude Lelouche’s Rendezous in which a car careen through Paris’s many districts during one of the most exciting yet death defying eight minutes you’ll see (it was butchered recently to become a Snow Patrol video). Lelouche’s film was the starting point for Nancy Davenport’s Workers, a series of documentary videos flowing through the Open Eye Galleries. Employees are shown at a Jaguar car factory at work and rest, on the production line and in the canteen, lateral tracking shots almost creating the view from the window of one of the cars passing by. It’s an important work, because it demonstrates that in places like this, human beings and machines have become to a degree interchangeable, especially since these are the kinds of job in which break time is conducted in the premises which doesn’t seem to provide any respite at all. How did we come to this?

Similar apocalyptic visions at the Bluecoat and Tracey Moffat’s Doomed, a ten minute sequence of shots from disaster and action films, in which humanity loses against wave upon wave of destructive forces, natural and man-made and alien. I suspect someone whose seen less films than me will have a different reaction, since I spent most of the three times I watched this trying to guess where all of the scenes were from, to the point that the other people gathered around on Friday night were asking me. Doomed was originally created a few years ago, and since montage sequences just like it have proliferated on video sharing sites like YouTube, but there's a definite intensity to the sheer scale of carnage on view here, a chance to concentrate on those who buy it whilst the hero is dashing for higher ground or locking themselves in a bunker. Just why does that man keep reading his paper as water washes through New York in The Day After Tomorrow rather than dash for the library like everyone else? What’s the point in checking stock options if you’re not going to be around the spend the dividends?

At the Tate, Guy Ben-Nar’s Second Nature recreates Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Crow, showing animal trainers attempting to coax the real life animals into giving a performance, for the bird to drop a piece of cheese to the predator on the ground. At the centre is a short section in which those trainers give a fairly good reading of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, even if this is rendered unintentionally funny because one of them mispronounces the name in the title to rhyme with ‘gobot’. In both cases we’re witness to repetitive, painfully fruitless acts – Didi and Gogo are never likely to see the man and there’s no way you’d expect the crow to give up the piece of cheese.

If there is a must see at the Biennial, especially if you are a film fan, it’s Omar Fast’s Take a Deep Breath, which blends aspects of Mike Figgis’s Timecode, Tom Dicillo’s Living in Oblivion and Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal in a work that experiments with the nature of reality in film and how our expectations of conflict, and in this case the story of a real world medic who attended the scene of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002. His narration and interview footage are intermixed with scenes featuring a fictional film crew as they recreate the scenes he witnessed and experienced, their narcissism dislocated from the grimness of the scene their art department has recreated.

What makes this work is the quality of the writing, its dark humour and characterisation better than some feature films can muster and performances, which hark back to the naturalistic heyday of indie productions. They’re unknowns, bit players from tv series and movies put in centre stage. I presume you’re not supposed to recognise any of them, and yet there I was on Friday night, blurting out ‘That’s Harry Von Gorkum!’ in the darkness. The suited man sitting next to be looked across and asked who and so I inevitably had to actually tell him. This English actor was the second choice to play the Doctor in the 1996 US tv movie. If Paul McGann hadn’t signed, the fate of the franchise would have been in Von Gorkum’s hands. He’s very good in this, and you can certainly see his timelord quality, as bluffs his way through asking one of the other extras out on a date.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered how Harry Lime felt after going through the conditioning process in The Ipcress File (and if so, why?) pop along to FACT and try and sit for the duration of Ulf Langheinrich’s LAND. On entry you’re handed some 3D glasses and depending upon which end of the piece you are, you’ll either be lulled by the gentle waves across what looks like an ocean floor, or assaulted by the kind of sound and vision an average untuned analogue tv throws out, rendered in 3D with an extra layer of flashing strobes underneath. The effect creates particles which hang in the air, and though oddly captivating it’s also nerve and brain jangling, Langheinrich mission to leave you unsettled accomplished.

No comments: