Thierry Goldberg Projects: January 9 – February 22, 2009
If the events in Keren Cytter’s video Les Ruissellements du Diable (The Devil’s Streams) (2008) have a familiar ring, it is because they are adapted from the same source material as Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up: Julio Cortázar’s short story “Las Babas del Diablo” (“The Devil’s Drool”). Like Antonioni, Cytter spins the story’s catalyst—a furtively snapped photograph of two lovers in a park—into an entirely different direction from the original. But Cytter applies Cortázar’s self-conscious narrative more concretely—lifting lines from the text (“One can probably never know how this has to be told, if in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or constantly inventing forms that would be totally useless”) for a reflexive voiceover musing on its own unreliability. The two onscreen performers, a man and a woman, externalize the conceit by explaining the story to the viewer—and to each other—as they simultaneously act it out.
Cytter is at her best when pushing the material to extremes: match cuts that meld the two characters (the man picks up a cigarette from an ashtray, the woman puffs it) and shock effects (graphic footage of male masturbation) that ensnare both the audience and the filmmakers in the characters’ circular voyeurism. And yet, what is most remarkable about the video has less to do with Cortázar’s “The Devil’s Drool” than with his novel Hopscotch, which offers the reader alternate paths through the chapters. With Les Ruissellements du Diable, Cytter has managed to create an emotionally intact narrative completely devoid of a beginning, middle and end. The characters watch TV, smoke, sulk, jerk off, meet in the park, spill a bottle of water, and hold hands in a series of self-contained but interrelated shots that could be reshuffled without losing coherence or disrupting the structure—or so it would seem.
There is undoubtedly a degree of formal gamesmanship at work here (Cytter seems to hint at the interchangeability of the scenes by splicing her director’s credit into the midpoint of the running time) but the video transcends its alienating effects through its visual inventiveness and conceptual rigor. This is not the case with the other piece on display, G for Murder (also 2008), which is marred by smudgy video, enervated acting and awkward pacing. As is often the case, a lesser work reveals the seams that a more accomplished piece disguises, and so G for Murder, which overtly compounds Michael Haneke with a substrate of Alfred Hitchcock for its plot and production design, inadvertently becomes a portal into what feels right and what feels wrong about Cytter’s project.
While Ruissellement sidesteps Antonioni’s iconic film by sticking closer to the source, the character’s languorous soul sickness feels directly imported from L’Avventura or Red Desert. Influence, of course, is inescapable, but Cytter’s practice falls into the art-from-art template rampant in much current and especially emerging work, which tends to make the mediocre look slicker and smarter than it really is, but can conversely dilute the strength of superior efforts. Cytter’s protagonist is a professional translator and amateur photographer, just as he is in “Las Babas del Diablo,” but these are occupations that Cortázar, an Argentinean who spent most of his adult life in Paris, had pursued. The question of direct experience is always a problem in adaptation, but if the work is to resonate it must engage somehow with the world sitting outside the studio door. Antonioni could be faulted for changing the character into an artistically inclined fashion photographer, but this was something the Italian director could identify with. Cytter uses the protagonist’s profession the same way that Cortázar did, to facilitate an inquiry into the slipperiness of perception, mediation and individual consciousness. But the grittiness of the struggle is gone.
This is not to take away from Cytter’s self-evident gifts or restless experimentation, but rather to examine the work’s assumptions. Are voyeurism, alienation and existential dread still all that compelling, or are they put into play here because they have been the basis of great art in the past? I can’t help but feel that after decades of undergraduate screenings of Rear Window, voyeurism has gotten a little long in the tooth. What is most affecting about her video is the chilly airlessness of the characters’ self-enclosed hermeticism and the cautious sincerity with which they reach for each other’s hands. Those bits of truth seemed to come from lived experience, not nouvelle vague stylizations. It’s the difference between making a drawing of a nude sculpture—say, Rodin’s Age of Bronze—as opposed to a live model. Rodin has already organized the volumes into a conceptually consistent whole, but one that follows his own vision; with a model, one is confronted with the abrupt shifts, meandering contours and dead ends of human anatomy, which demand solutions on their own terms. They are less ruissellements and more babas. But the evidence of this show, along with earlier works (much of it available on YouTube), like the hallucinogenic Something Happened (2007), is that Cytter is not an artist inclined to stay put.