Art of Estrangement: Sky Hopinka, Jodie Mack and Courtney Stephens in NYFF Projections

Sky Hopinka has been making films on the cusp of documentary and visual arts that delve into the philosophical questions of language, cultural identity, free will and representation. His new short, Fainting Spells, is an amalgam of a string-of-consciousness monologue, addressed to Xawiska, a plant used by the Ho-Chunk tribe as a remedy for fainting, observational footage of landscape swathed in smoke and fog, and brightly colored, distorted images that evoke shamanistic figures and hallucinatory mental states.

The most exciting point of Hopinka’s new film comes at the end, when computer graphics make it seem as if layers of earth were being peeled and lifted up, in an apocalyptic, magical realist scenario, à la Gabriel García Márquez. Hopinka, like the great storyteller Márquez, brings to light complex stories that on one hand problematize the social fabric of his community, and on the other engage us in epic, epistolary, discursive experiences.

The Grand Bizarre, image credit Jodie Mack

A looser cultural canvas but equally imaginative, contextual approach can be found in the work of Jodie Mack, whose feature, The Grand Bizarre, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, is her most ambitious work yet. A visual mosaic of carpets and fabrics, the film is a travelogue through divergent cultural landscapes, from Europe, United States, to the Middle East.

What at first appears a random promenade soon emerges as a series of discernible patterns. We come to recognize particular fabrics as belonging to specific geographic regions. The “bizarre” is the wondrous journey, the miles traveled, the landscapes portrayed. Yet the phrase isn’t entirely innocent. Mack seems to be also questioning the touristic, commercial approach to material objects that reduces complexity to simple, easily identifiable codes.

Like Hopinka, Mack takes a leap into the uncertain when she merges her ethnographic research with the imagery of computerized processes. Technology is also a kind of coding, a utilitarian attempt to systematize. And where the artisanal crafts become industrialized the codes become further abstractions, mass productions, multiplications that dissolve the cultural markers. Which is not to say that Mack’s work is a somber treatise—to the contrary, there is exuberance in The Grand Bizarre, as much as there is excess, exhaustion.

Mixed Signals, image credit Courtney Stephens

Mixed Signals, image credit Courtney Stephens

Language as signs, as trance, an impermeable other, also features in Mixed Signals, a short by Courtney Stephens. Stephens combines nautical language, used to question crews of ships that find themselves in danger, with maritime code poems by American poet Hannah Weiner. In both, there is a musicality and abstract logic, which creates a juxtaposition with two parallel visual stories: footage of a sunken ship, its rusty, plankton-covered hull, and the images and sound from a doctor’s examination that tests a woman’s motor functions.

The various languages, aural and visual, commands and poetry permeate each other, to create new, strange meanings. What’s meant to be entirely objective—questions, such as, “Are you in danger?,” orders, such as, “Pilotage is compulsory“ or descriptions, “I was plundered by a pirate”—becomes eerily suggestive, the subtexts suddenly confounded. As in some of Hopinka’s earlier works, Stephens gets at the mystery of language as a system of agreed-upon codes. Signals, which by their very nature are mixed.

Fainting Spells is featured in New York Film Festival Projections Program 3: Trips to the Interior, Oct 7, 2018. The Grand Bizarre plays in Projections Oct 7 & 13. Mixed Signals is featured in Projections Program 4: Form and Function, Oct 7.

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