The Passing & Nic Nicosia Movies

If I had any idea what I was in for with this double feature, I would never have entered the theater.

Yes, they were that bad.

Well truthfully, bad is a harsh word. “Experimental” or “avant garde” would be good euphemisms in this case. But those two terms don’t make these two films any more enjoyable to endure.

Let me start with The Passing, directed by Bill Viola. According to the gracious press notes, it’s described as “Viola’s personal response to the spiritual extremes of birth and death in the family.” Alright, I was with him so far. But as the reel started, his film quickly departed the current plane of existence.

What ensued was mostly surrealistic, dreamlike visual interpretation — of what I’m not entirely sure. But I can tell you this, I didn’t get the sense of the afterlife. In fact, with the number and duration of underwater sequences, the only mental image I gathered was that of a urinal. Unfortunately, there were no intermissions.

And by the way, what aquatic homoerotic imagery has to do with “spiritual extremes of life and death” is anybody’s guess. It felt more like special interest exposition to me.


Extra Screening:

Next up was a series of Nic Nicosia’s movies. Nicosia is a local artist here in Dallas, TX. When the travel advertisement declares, “Texas: it’s like a whole other country,” they weren’t kidding. Nicosia is in his own little world.For the life of me, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about this guy. He’s quite revered around here for his work. In a recent biography, he’s described thusly:

“He favors a… style that causes you to ask yourself more questions about its subjects and participants than the works are willing to answer.” {1}

Nicosia has been photographing staged still images of various themes for over 25 years now. He’s just now making his “break” into moving pictures.

He’s infatuated with suburban themes and slice-of-life Americana as his last film segment tried to depict. Shot in black and white digital video continuously from a moving van, he circled his neighborhood several times (I lost count), documenting the typical events of a small-town neighborhood unfold.

Trouble is, a few of them weren’t so typical. For instance, there are a couple neighbor boys dragging around a mannequin. Far from a Norman Rockwellian little red wagon, this was a morbidly inanimate life-size dummy. Why? When asked about it in the forum after the screening, Nicosia “figured it was something two boys would do.” Thankfully, not all of Dallas is populated by pathological toddlers like the ones in Nicosia’s head.

Weirdness aside, the entire segment was totally disengaging. With each nauseous revolution of his community, I kept praying that something truly interesting would happen, but it never came. The whole thing was an exercise in logistics, not characterization.

Hey, I like a good Monet like the next guy, and I’ll have all you artsy-fartsies know that one of my radio presets is set on the local classical station. I’m just a peon in the art world, but I do know what I like and this sadly wasn’t it.

The point to remember is that while their technical aspects merit some appreciation, Viola’s and Nicosia’s movies are for filmmakers, not moviegoers. And that makes them hard to watch if you’re not a connoisseur. Give me a discernable story arc any day.

Footnotes:

  1. “Talking Pictures”, by Bret McCabe, The Met, July, 21, 2000. []

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