By Ray Pride
If a movie, any movie, were set in New York City in the summer of 2001 and its story ended before 9/11, it might well be near unbearable. Every gesture would be freighted. Every hope would glimmer with the possibility—nay, the fatedness—of sudden ruin and loss.
Danny Leiner’s “The Great New Wonderful” (see Tip of the Week) is set a year later. But the characters do not mention that atrocity except through confusion and odd behaviors. Sirens and jets overhead set their—our—teeth on edge. In a way, it’s a similar strategy to Maya Lin’s brilliant public monuments, such as the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, which gain their power from similar indirection. Emotion is evoked, interpretation is left to the viewer.
A forty-minute video showing this week in a gallery is even more powerful and affecting, Mary Scherer’s artfully artless “The Index of Absence V. 1.” In notes for the project, Scherer writes in unalloyed academese, perhaps a reflection of it being a BFA project. But the result is furious, precise, elusive and alive. She works at a coffee shop near where I live and co-workers and customers of that café, most in their twenties, comprise many of the thirty-five participants. I’m acquainted with some of the subjects, but the result would be as powerful even if they weren’t faces I see regularly. Each collaborator is asked to address the camera as if it were someone they lost, in whatever sense of the word. Abrupt cuts to black between the sixty-second vignettes are part of the phenomenal power of the best bits: don’t look away, don’t look away, look away, look away.
The structure is based on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, from denial to acceptance, but the segments—the subjects—are compelling on their own. Some are cryptic, others elliptical. Early on, a woman against a white wall, a cigarette alive below the frame, with cascading curls and silent-movie-star eyes fidgets before exploding in anger at another woman whose betrayal is unspecified. Pages of writing are seen in mirror reflection along a hallway: a man enters, finishing a can of beer, strips down, leaves the frame, pitches himself against the pages, the wall. Again.
In several segments, grandparents are evoked, those gone before these twentysomethings were even born. A filmmaker positions herself in darkness before a window during a lightning storm, with crackling results. An open-faced woman worries about “this virgin thing,” and her lack of sexual experience. My favorite line of the summer is in another, the heartbreaking “I would have loved to have gone train-hopping with you.” (“That day, grandma, you were a knockout,” also made me cry.)
A markedly bearish man begins to cry, recalling that the number of someone he’s lost is still on his cell phone. In almost total darkness, a man shrouded in a hoodie remembers a dead friend. Another subject face is rounded by a hoodie: cigarette smoke rises as, almost without blinking, she recalls how she’s grown strong because of her late mother’s failures, resolute beyond her years, steadfast and articulate. That’s “the nature of family legacies,” she says, coolly, impressively.
Each person shot their own footage. “I thought that the participant should have complete control over the way they were shot,” Scherer tells me. “I knew that some participants might want to say something, but hide their identity. I wanted it to be clear to the audience that the participants were not exploited,” that they wanted to be part of the project. “They controlled how they were represented, and I even gave them first choice over which one-minute segment I used. However, most participants allowed me that jurisdiction. Some participants had their own camera and I simply sent them the video format (mostly mini-DV, but also Hi-8 and DV-Cam) of their choice, and they mailed me the tape. I provided a camera to about half of the participants. I chose the most compelling one-minute moment, and then arranged them in the five stages of grief. Since the participants knew that I would be choosing one minute, many tried to fit everything that they wanted to say into a minute, which is an impossibility. I wanted to find the tip of the iceberg.” It’s an endlessly malleable notion. Scherer intends to make two more, with the elderly, to “see what an 80-year-old has to say about loss,” and then children.
The final moment of “Absence” is chipper and hale: a 27-year-old filmmaker in a bright, flowered dress displays a camera from her collection to her late grandmother and says, “This is the dress you made for mama when she was the strawberry queen.” It’s a radiant envoi.
“The Great New Wonderful” opens Friday at Siskel; “The Index of Absence” plays Saturday 8pm at Heaven Gallery, 1550 N. Milwaukee, second floor, as part of a longer program called “Hold Fast.”