Welcome to the newest installment of my regular series dedicated to exploring the avant-garde video stash at UbuWeb by using the Ubu Roulette randomizer. You can find the previous posts in the series here.
This week Ubu Roulette gave me Rodney Graham’s Vexation Island (1997). I’d never heard of him before, therefore his work and its context were unfamiliar to me. Later I would learn that his work comes out of Vancouver’s 1970s photoconceptual tradition, and that he represented Canada at the 1997 Venice Biennale with this film.
My first viewing took place at a bed and breakfast in Hammond, Louisiana. I watched it in the evening, sitting on a leather sofa, from beginning to end, and decided I needed to think about it and watch it again before writing anything, because my initial reaction could most generously be described as overwhelmingly unimpressed.
Once I returned home to Tallahassee, I watched it again. This time on my own couch, in my own living room, in the early morning, the sun yet to rise and a rainstorm intensifying, accompanied by thunder and lightning, my wife and eight month old son asleep in our bedroom. I’m thinking about the lightning, about how lightning is a massive electrostatic discharge between the electrically charged regions within clouds or between a cloud and the surface of our planet, while I begin to view Graham’s film again. I think about the lack of electrically charged regions within this film.
The opening image couldn’t be farther from my present situation. Bright and calm. The sounds of the sea: water moving and gulls calling. Yet, as I type that last sentence and instantly reflect upon it I realize this image is not actually very distant from my present situation. I am near islands such as this one. My wife and I visit them often, either St. George’s Island in the gulf or one of the many islands off the coast of North Florida and South Georgia. The sound of water surrounds me as I type these words, granted the pounding rain makes for a different experience than the soothing slosh of the sea in the film. But still. I could be somewhere like Chicago right now, where my brother lives, where he reports the near freezing recent temperatures. I must admit I am lucky to be in a warm climate. I talked to my brother the other day and he told me it was rotten cold in Chicago; meanwhile, why chatting, I wore shorts and a t-shirt and walked my son around a park while sipping on an ice-cold cherry limeade. So I guess I am here now, closer to Graham’s island than my brother.
The first three shots are static. It opens with a painterly establishing shot of a topical island, which brings to mind explorations of the color blue by artists such as Monet:
Or Van Gough, who described his attraction to the color blue in a letter to his brother Theo:
One night I went for a walk by the sea along the empty shore. It was not gay, but neither was it sad – it was – beautiful. The deep blue sky was flecked with clouds of a blue deeper than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way. In the blue depth the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, rose, brighter, flashing more like jewels, than they do at home – even in Paris: opals you might call them, emeralds, lapis, rubies, sapphires.
The second shot, a low angle medium showing the top of a palm tree. Followed by a high angle medium showing the shore. From above to below to above again. By moving from the downward angle to the upward angle to the downward angle, we rock like the water lapping against the sand.
Then a long shot, which begins to move in a tracking motion ever so slowly. Abruptly the movement is interrupted by another static shot, this time a low angle on the top of a different palm tree; this shot then begins to boom down the length of the tree until it evens out to reveal a man in buccaneer garb lying on his back atop the sand, his head propped on a smallish wooden barrel, a parrot perched on another smallish barrel at his feet.
The pacing is slow, methodical, trance-inducing. By the time we are introduced to this person and parrot, three minutes into this nine minute film, they seem less like fauna and more like flora, less like animals and more like part of the landscape itself. He is in repose. Perhaps dead. Perhaps sleeping. Perhaps unconscious. However, he does not appear to be the victim of washing up on shore. His clothes are dry and his position suggests either he or someone else placed him in this position. Minus the Lilliputians or their restraints, he conjures in my mind the image of Swift’s Gulliver:
A close up shot reveals a bloody patch on his forehead:
At the seven minute mark he opens his eyes:
A reverse shot reveals he is staring at the sun. He slowly sits up to gather his senses. He slowly rises, turns around, and looks at the palm tree; he walks to it, puts his hands around its trunk and begins to shake it—
—which causes a coconut to come loose and drop, striking him on the head, knocking him unconscious. He falls in a balletic motion to the sand. The parrot watches the coconut roll toward the intertidal zone. The film ends on a medium shot of the coconut being carried off by the tide:
Thus we can presume the wound on the buccaneer’s head came from him having already tried this maneuver before. And that’s where I stopped thinking about this film the first time I watched it. Seemed like too obvious of an illustration of the futility of life, eternal repetition, determinism, and whatever fill-in-the-blank other metaphor you can think of without thinking. So I judged it too easy. Pretty, sure, but easy.
Upon further consideration, I nearly maintain that position but for two caveats.
First, the time code. If the running numbers at the bottom of screen are part of the film, rather than evidence of this being a rough cut of the film, then I am impressed by it. When the film begins the time code reads one hour and nine seconds. This suggests a bevy of strangeness.
Second, the way the film depicts the landscape. Reminiscent of a travel advertisement or a nature program, the location itself makes a mighty impression.
Otherwise, this film reminds me of the type of thing we made in our second or third year film production classes: clever, semi-stylish, and succinct narratives. Granted, we shot on 16mm and this appears to be 35mm, and therefore more costly. But the thing itself does not strike me as very avant-garde, if I’m being honest. Instead it strikes me as quite traditional, something a Hollywood-bound film student might submit for a Student Academy Award. Like last week’s film, it makes too much sense, I don’t find much bafflement in it, and therefore I find little to admire.
Hopefully next week Ubu Roulette will finally give me something stronger and stranger to write about. Until then…