Pretend to Pretend in the Art of Appearances - Essay in Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive, 2018
‘Emotions as such are deceiving. There are no specifically fake emotions because, as Freud puts it literally, the only emotion which doesn’t deceive is anxiety. All other emotions are fake.
So, of course, the problem here is are we able to encounter in cinema the emotion of anxiety, or is cinema as such a fake? Cinema, as the art of appearances, tells us something about reality itself. It tells us something about how reality constitutes itself.’
From the opening frame, Alex Prager’s films are spellbinding. They are bright, bold, electric. They are beguiling and morbidly seductive. They unfold in surprising ways to reveal perplexing incidents that linger with us long after their rolling credits.
And these films appear as if we have seen them before. The characters are nearly recognizable, their stories vaguely familiar. They are permanently stuck in another time. What is reflected on the big screen is at once uncertain and exact. They suggest a cinema we’ve visited in the past, but cannot quite place. The cast and the cadence are clearly leading us towards something we should already know. Yet, Prager’s films don’t fully reveal themselves scene by scene. They rather reintroduce us frame by frame and in every aspect of film.
Prager belongs to a generation of contemporary artists who fully own their media. She wields a camera and a director’s chair with equal strength, and creates both movies and photographs in full view of their commercial influences and the complex politics of art-house avant-garde cinema. And she does so at full throttle without apology.
During the second half of the 20th century, artists were seeking to distance themselves from art-historical tradition. A generation, which included Bruce Nauman, Eleanor Antin, and John Baldessari, particularly in California, began to weave photography, film, and video with performance and sculpture. They engaged electronic technologies as a means to wrest the media of mass communication from commercial interests. Increased portability of 16mm cameras and video tape further liberated artists from the studio, giving them a new and independent voice where polished and well financed productions were abandoned in favour of a low-fidelity, democratic avant-garde.
What followed in the late 1970s, and continued through to the end of the millennium, was a political and social reversal. As curator and scholar Douglas Eklund observes, artists were disillusioned that the utopian promise of an effective counterculture had ‘devolved into a commercialized pastiche of rebellious stances prepackaged for consumption.’iii The Pictures Generation, 1974–1984 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2009)took authority and made way for globally conscious artists among a burgeoning universe of images, and eventually set the stage for immersive, virtual, and moving works of art.
Composing both motion pictures and two- dimensional photographs, Prager’s artistic practice mirrors that of large-scale studio productions,from scripting, set design, casting, and wardrobe to lighting, choreography, sound design, and screening. Yet Prager distills the resulting components into a rich Hollywood concentrate. Each highly polished work presents a jewel-toned intensity littered with the parodied clichés of popular cinema and packed with melodramatic renderings of tension, anxiety, and suspense. But hers are not empty calories. For all of the familiar Hollywood glitz and vivid glamour of the finished films, Prager has shaped a novel artistic practice that mingles southern California-studio aesthetics with a distinctively informed vision. One aspect of her accomplishments in film, and one aspect of our sometimes guilty pleasure of consuming it, is that what screens as a cinematically pristine and signature style is collectively rendered from generations of cinematic and photographic influences, social currents and filmic intent. Consumed all together, they fulfil an imaginative and determined mode of production that gives the artist a voice.
Prager’s artistic practice, on the whole, identifies a sophisticated relationship between still photography and moving images. Often produced at the same time, her large-format photographs are exhibited along-side motion pictures intended for the big screen. For Prager, they are distinct modes of expression that,
while technically and aesthetically tethered to one another, are realized independently. Her engagements evoke notions of storytelling and processes of interpretation, but underscore just how a picture is held together, be it moving or otherwise. They urge us to look at the symptoms of stories and storytelling, as well as the symptoms of watching stories unfold in time.
A photograph – whether motivated by social documentary, editorial, or high-art ambition – has no beginning and there is no end. It is frozen in the moment, and a photograph is, of course, mute. Prager’s early work in moving pictures expands photography to include the added dimension of time. For Prager, these single compositions reveal what happens ‘just before, just now, and just after’ her photographs.
Sunday, filmed in 2010, is built from that single scene. It unfolds in just over one minute, but was achieved with the full complement of actors, editors, and designers. In it, Prager draws from her own rich photographic practice, and builds a set of devices anew that she would return to in her later films. Sunday opens cinematically in stereo. Two nearly identical frames, playing side by side, unfold in what at first appears to be a single take. Upon closer scrutiny, each frame is composed with modestly different gestures, the actors altering their performances ever so subtly between takes. Screened concurrently, the sequences present an unbalanced timeline from beginning to end. They are a crowd at the track waiting for the action to begin. Anticipation resides just under the surface as we wait with them, sharing a cigarette with a companion, reading a paper, or peering through binoculars to adjust our view. The protagonist only emerges in the last tenth of the film. She is full of tension and acutely focused. As the starter pistol fires, she unifies the films in the closing frame just as her heart begins to race.
Fortunately for us, we never see the action that the spectators patiently await. In its place, Prager turns our attention to the individual characters that make up the audience and the stories they bring to the event. Each of them brings a reason for being in the moment. Theirs is a finite moment in time recorded to repeat indefinitely.
If Prager’s early motion pictures were temporal expansions of her photography, Despair feels like a leap towards traditional cinema. Prager refers to Despair as her first film. It was a clearly ambitious production. The artist cast the accomplished actor Bryce Dallas Howard in the lead role, and commissioned an original score by composer Ali Helnwein. Under Prager’s direction, it emerged as a fully formed film with all of a narrative arc’s requisite parts – exposition, rising action, anticipation, climax, falling action, and resolution. And all in just over four minutes.
But Despair is unreal. It’s Los Angeles circa 1960. There is a striking woman. She stands in a dramatically lit phone booth. Bright red lipstick with high heels to match, she is dressed to the nines but distraught. Her eyes well up with tears as she bolts out of the booth and down a sunlit street, her heels striking the pavement with a determined but somehow false staccato. She is surrounded by southern California perfection but is beset with emotion, nonetheless. Pure, cinematic melodrama. Our heroine finds her escape through a red door and eventually by leaping through a sugar-glass window. Her descent is not violent. Instead, she finds solace in the setting sun and the sky before her shoes alone land on the pavement below, spot-lit, suggesting the end. The casting is perfect. The costumes are perfect. The performance is perfect. The entire incident is idealized, but leaves us somehow unsettled and with a sense of anxiety.
Released in 2012, Prager’s La Petite Mort also alludes to traditional cinema and to television’s The Twilight Zone, but is decidedly more noir in delivery. A narrator
and our finely composed protagonist – performed by French actor Judith Godrèche – contemplate the moment of death. She stands on the tracks and focuses longingly on an approaching train – the quintessential symbol for the relentless persistence of time. Briefly interrupted by a scampering kitty, the locomotive deals the final blow. As this heroine reemerges from the void, she is joined by characters from her story. They are emotionally complicit. Hapless as they are as witnesses, their silent judgment gives life to the tale. At the conclusion of the film, and as the credits roll, we are left with the train’s tracks trailing off behind us. Among numerous not-so-subtle metaphors throughout Prager’s work, this one brilliantly signals what is behind us and its influence on our futures.
Face in the Crowd (2013) represents a significant departure. Rather than showing in a traditional, single-screen theatre, it comprises three screens in a digital-cinema installation. The feature on each screen is independent, linked together only in the final moments of the film. A full sound-scape fills the room.
The work begins with a series of intimate monologues delivered by the extras in the film. Each one describes an array of personal experiences, fears, apprehensions, pretend to pretend in the art of appearances 153 memories, and relationships. In an instant, the scenes change and their characters flood the screens surrounding the viewer. Bodies are packed together in hallways, on the beach, in movie theatres, or on the street. They push and shove their way to imaginary destinations, their voices drowning in the hustle. The central character – played by American actor Elizabeth Banks – peers through a windowpane at the endless parade. She anxiously meanders her way into the crowd, joining the fray. The chaos quickly overwhelms her and she becomes unable to move. Just as she might collapse from the crowd-phobic tension, the action halts. The throngs freeze. And in a moment of both confusion and relief, she directs herself through the motionless bodies and exits stage left.
The film traces a spectrum of concerns: a fear of crowds and the desire to stand out among them; voyeurism and exhibitionism; the spectator’s gaze and the inability to live up to expectations. But it more acutely identifies the anxiety of being swept up by the masses while trying to create and maintain a sense of self; conditions long present in the physical world, but amplified yet again in the virtual spaces we inhabit today.
These concerns are paramount once more in the production La Grande Sortie. The film originates also with a crowd as they queue at the Opéra Bastille for a long-anticipated performance of a prima ballerina – a role performed by étoile Émilie Cozette. The orchestral score is Stravinsky’s, although it is arranged by contemporary rock producer Nigel Godrich. From the beginning, the tension is thick. Is she nervous? Confident? Hopeful? Excited? Our ballerina grows ever more unsettled and off-balanced after each entanglement with the audience. Her anxiety is riveting, either real or imagined, until she makes her escape.
These stories may be as much autobiographical as they are fiction. In each film, women occupy the lead role, the centre of attention among prying eyes and in a sea of stories. The role Prager plays as film-maker is the same. She moves seamlessly between the emotional states rendered in her films, drawing sharp contrast from one to the next. Her films clearly reference Alfred Hitchcock and film noir, and owe debts of gratitude to Maya Deren or Alain Resnais, just as her photographic works remind us of William Eggleston, Enrique Metinides, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Wall. In a nod to the noted French theorist Jacques Derrida, ‘To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.’vii Part of our response rests upon Prager’s masterful delivery and our recognition of these artistic pillars. The other depends upon our deferment to, or indulgence of, the power of their seduction.
But that parity is not necessarily a critique of cinema or Hollywood, but rather a likely and necessary companion. Prager’s ability to distill pictures down to their most vivid parts is compelling. These devices pretend to pretend in the art of appearances of hyper-synthetic technicolour and hot stereotypes, amplified character actors in polyester wardrobes, are indeed the seductive play of special effects.viii They play to our personal tellings. The perceived shallow nature of these characters, even in brief,allows them an unmistakable dimension, placing the burden back upon us to imagine depth where there is none.
This visual language precedes us. Rather than challenging our assumptions, Prager invites us to participate in the story’s making. In so doing, she exposes the fugitive nature of motion pictures. The coded symbolism and visual vocabularies authored during the golden age of movies continue to have a profound effect on how we interpret the characters
we encounter today. With this hermetic view of cinema, films perhaps refer to other films as much as their making. And at this moment in Hollywood, as we are each taking stock of personal interactions, social codes and conduct with one another, Prager’s achievements draw focus. These are films that manage to be precisely of their time and utterly timeless.
i Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, directed by Sophie Fiennes, 2006, ICA Projects UK.
ii ‘Video Art’, Art Journal, Winter 1995, vol. 54, no. 4, edited by John G. Hanhardt and Maria-Christina Villasenor.
iii Douglas Eklund, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 2004.
iv Leslie Camhi, ‘L.A. Noir: Alex Prager’s “Compulsion”’,Vogue, March 2012.
v Interview with Gregory Crewdson, Art Forum Magazine,26 January 2016.
vi Interview with Alex Prager, https://www.nowness.com/story/bryce-dallas-howard-in-despair, retrieved August 2017.
vii Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980, p. 137.
viii Norman M. Klein, From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, The New Press, New York, 2004, p. 512.