Art of the Real Makes the Case for Reenactment

Film Society of Lincoln Center

There is a moment in The Eternal Frame in which one of the participating reenactors exclaims, “This is really bad taste,” and then throws his head back in laughter. The film, made by two collaborating artist collectives, re-stages and parodies the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It culminates in a live reenactment at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, where unsuspecting tourists have gathered to pay their respects and ponder the Grassy Knoll. It’s a pretty accurate recreation, led by a hammy president and a drag First Lady.

It’s also among the most daringly comic acts in the reenactment-focused sidebar of Art of the Real, playfully titled “Repeat as Necessary.” The assembled works run the gamut from hilarious and irreverent to somber and terrifying, with films as warm as Elisabeth Subrin’s Shulie and as brutal as Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire. The use of reenactment also varies greatly. Rather than a polemic statement supporting a particular method, the sidebar is a symposium of styles. Perhaps the only kind of reenactment not included in the program is the simplest, the recreation of criminal acts for primarily narrative reasons that recently stirred up so much controversy with regard to HBO’s The Jinx. The films in Art of the Real don’t reenact sensational events that the audience has not seen simply to show them, but rather reenact the actions and lives of their subjects in order to alter the way they were previously perceived.

Turning back to The Eternal Frame, its own recasting of the JFK assassination makes great use of comedy. Or, rather, it tests the truth of the cliche that comedy is simply tragedy plus time. The accents and the outfits now seem like kitsch, the frantic Jackie hurling herself across the car a moment of essentially American slapstick. By distilling the memory down to its image, the filmmaking team is able to see past the significance of the original event. The most immediate effect is the laughter, but it is what the laughter means that gives us pause, forces us to question our relationship with the hallowed media representation of national heroes and tragedies.

Much of this comes from the expressive strangeness of the reenactment. By concerning themselves with uncanny exactitude rather than dramatic impact, the instigators of The Eternal Frame find something new to say. This is qualitatively different than the attempts at re-creation showcased on crime television shows, the goals of which seem to be more in the category of the Hollywood biopic. The Eternal Frame is, instead, part of a circle of films that seize upon the inherently uncanny nature of reenactment to force the audience into a slightly different apprehension of history.

Among these is Shulie, a reenactment of a lost 1967 direct cinema documentary about famed feminist writer Shulamith Firestone, back when she was still a photography student in Chicago. With the air of a Christopher Guest film or Parks and Recreation, Subrin’s Shulie spends her time arguing with professors, postulating about documentary ethics and relationships, and trying to understand the racial politics of the post office. Staged footage of her painting portfolio defense is particularly interesting, taking her still-developing intellectual identity and placing it into the fully-formed and irritatingly misogynist backdrop of 1960s academia. This isn’t a rehash of the powerful ideas of The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone’s 1970 magnum opus, but rather a re-contextualization of these ideas with her youth.

A similar appropriation of character is Ming Wong’s Learn German with Petra von Kant, though it is a much more aggressively ridiculous work. It’s a brief video in which the artist, dressed in drag as the titular heroine of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s minimalist melodrama masterpiece, mimics a particularly memorable scene as it plays in an adjacent shot. It’s hysterical because it’s so strange, in spite of the fact that the original document is one dripping with emotional desolation. The notion that you can take a transcendent emotional experience and use it for something as mundane as language acquisition is a remarkably creative use of reenactment. Comedy isn’t only tragedy plus time, it’s also tragedy from a different angle.

Film Society of Lincoln Center

The brilliant linchpin of this entire discourse, as well as the highlight of the program, is James Benning’s Landscape Suicide. Cleft in half, the film relates the stories of two American murderers in very different circumstances. The first is Bernadette Protti, the California teenager who stabbed a cheerleader classmate to death in 1984. The second is Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer who murdered and mutilated at least two women in the mid-1950s. The film treats both cases with cold restraint. Each criminal is represented by a reenactor who somewhat dispassionately reads out their court testimony. This is intercut with a number of passively unsettling images of the American landscape, including piles of dead deer, silent churches and a tennis court full of balls strewn about without the slightest interest.

All of this is very effectively chilling, a close reading of American horror by taking its most violent incidents and filtering them through legal records. However, each half of the film also contains a bizarre musical number, two twinned tributes to the victims. The first involves a teenage girl sitting alone in her bedroom, talking into the phone for the entire duration of “Memory” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, blasting atop the scene. The second consists of a middle-aged woman dancing by herself in her living room. These scenes are irrepressibly strange, self-consciously false evocations of female innocence and the supposed safety of domestic life. They are also hilarious, making it impossible not to laugh and equally impossible to feel good about that laughter.

So what exactly is Benning getting at? “Memory” was actually played at the murdered cheerleader’s funeral, though that piece of information is withheld until after this scene. By using reenactment to create something complicated, rather than a simple scene of murder and subsequent trial, Benning avoids what Jill Godmilow refers to as “the pornography of the real.” She uses this term in her own film in the program, 1998’s What Farocki Taught. The film is a reenactment of Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire (1969), itself a reenactment of how scientists at Dow Chemical manufactured napalm for the Vietnam War.

For Godmilow, both of these films take a stand against meaningless pornography. They oppose what she sees as the dominant style, made up of brutal images and other attempts to poke at an audience with visceral triggers. Her insistence upon agitprop by more intellectual means nicely dovetails with Benning’s use of odd reenactment as a more effective way of finding the dark currents of the American cultural landscape, eschewing a simpler interpretation of the singular evil of two murderers.

Film Society of Lincoln Center

All of which is to say that reenactment, when used at the right time and for the right reasons, can create a tremendously complex work of art that adds to and changes an event rather than simply regurgitating it to an audience. This can even be said in the case of a film like Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch, an epic reenactment of the life of the great Norwegian painter. It has some of the comic sensibility of Shulie, particularly in the unavoidably deadpan way in which the brutality of late-19th century life is portrayed.

Yet it also brushes up against the weight of memory, evoking the Freudian psychology that would influence Munch’s own work. Moreover, Watkins looks outward, directing the actor playing Munch to frequently make eye contact with the camera. When the fourth wall is made out of the fabric of time itself, an intervening century, its crumbling is even more impactful. This defiant reenactment connects the audience to Munch’s emotional state in a much more striking way than any traditional biopic could.

The breaking down of walls is a convenient link between Edvard Munch and one last Art of the Real selection, Juan Downey’s Las Meninas. It’s a film made on a conceptual whirlwind, constantly shifting its relationship to the boundaries of artistic perception. Its subject painting, Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” is a work of art about itself. The painting displays the painter himself at his easel, next to a young Spanish princess and her maidens of honor. The ostensible subject of the unseen painting within the painting is the King and Queen of Spain, represented in miniature in a mirror in the background. This reflexivity has inspired countless commentaries, including Michel Foucault’s claim in The Order of Things that it represents a massive sea change in epistemology.

Downey, for his part, chooses to reenact the painting and its elements. They consists not only of actors playing the King and Queen of Spain, but also of dancers reenacting the role of the mirror, both doubling and obscuring its object. This eventually turns to a discourse on the mirror image of culture and economics, the role of the artist in an economically distressed country, and the way that Spain exerted its influence over its colonies. All of this comes from reenactment, a tool evidently capable of almost anything.

The above six films are not the only ones in the series, nor are they entirely representative. That, it seems, is the whole point. There is no single way to reuse and reconstruct images, nor is there a lone purpose to this process of representation and reappraisal. It would be impossible to emerge from this series with the conclusion (or at least the titular conclusion) of Richard Brody’s essay in The New Yorker last month. What these films evoke is a reminder that there is an infinite realm of possibility for reenactment in cinema, that all cinema brushes up against reenactment in one way or another, and that we need absolutely need more of it.

Art of the Real runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City from April 10th through April 26th. The full program of screenings, including the above five films, can be found at the Film Society’s website. Edvard Munch, which has already screened, can be viewed on Fandor.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.