Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

Reiterative Revolution
Lisa Coultard

Vancouver artist Stan Douglas’s recent art installation Inconsolable Memories (2006) offers a 16 mm film based on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1968 film Memorias del subdesarrollo ( Memories of Underdevelopment ) and a series of photographs from Havana. Known primarily for his work in video and film, this exhibit extends the thematic and structural doubling that are pervasive in Douglas’s work (split or two-sided screens, layered images, character doubling, and ghosting) to a double form for the installation itself: photographs and film loop. Both parts of the exhibit take post-revolutionary Cuba as the focal point (and there is some direct doubling of locales that appear in both), but they approach the issues of memory, history, and identity in markedly distinct ways.

Lushly coloured, the photographs feature bright, uniformly lit, and carefully framed shots of empty architectural, scenic, and interior spaces that emphasize the impact of time on space and the role of sight: we see landscapes through holes in walls, empty theatres with windows of light, architectural spaces with cutaways, empty rooms decorated as if for a museum or frozen in time. Throughout the photographs, our attention is drawn to layers of time: the once elegant home, the graffiti on the walls, the rebirth of the theatre as parking garage, the emptied out panoptic prison. In this architectural and spatial play of past and present usage, as well as in the images’ frontal compositions and absence of human action (there is one shot of a marketplace featuring human figures), the photographs exude a kind of touristic gaze, an exaggerated visuality and clarity that seems to offer up these images to the spectator for consumption.

In combination with these photographs, and occupying a focalizing role in the exhibition, the filmic portion of the installation consists of two uneven loops (one is 28:15 minutes, the other 15:57) of 16 mm black-and-white footage that are played simultaneously so that the ordering of segments alters in the projection. This looped film can be seen within the greater context of Douglas’s film and video works, especially those described by Douglas as “recombinant.” Reworking seminal film texts, Douglas’s recombinant Journey into Fear (2001), Suspiria (2003), and Inconsolable Memories (2005) do not merely replay existing film material (as in Douglas’s looping of the robbery in Hitchcock’s Marnie [1964] for his Subject to a Film: Marnie [1995]), but modify and remake the referent text, adding layers and depths while also subtracting and excising. The works thus effectively engage in a kind of intertextual rewrite, renegotiating the presences and absences in the original work and redistributing what are seen to be its major and minor keys.

This redistribution is not, however, only a formal restructuring but a modification of the thematic, ideological, and political systems inherent in the original referent’s form and narration. A complex, intertextual rewriting and resituating of Alea’s 1968 film adaptation of Edmund Desnoes’ novel, Douglas’s Inconsolable Memories alters the film’s key events and themes. Alea’s film is a landmark in Cuban and world cinemas, adapting art cinema modes of narration for political purposes, depicting the thoughts, memories, and hauntings of the main character, Sergio, and his decision to remain in Cuba after the mass exodus of (mostly wealthy and bourgeois) Cubans after the 1956 revolution. Paralleling gender and national politics of revolution and change, the film offers an exploration of the solipsism, self-absorption, and most importantly, self-loathing, that are the potential obverse of any coherent construction of individual or national identity. Operating as an allegory for national cycles of destructive repetition, Sergio’s failed romances in the film are the result of his own seduction by and loathing for bourgeois and Western ways. Most explicit in this metaphoric depiction is Sergio’s affair with a young girl of sixteen: disgusted by his wife’s exodus and adherence to European and American modes of behaviour and dress, Sergio seduces what he sees as a more innocent, unspoiled, and authentically “Cuban” girl. Yet, it is this same girl that he can’t help but “ruin.” Attracted to what he sees as her natural and virginal state, he deflowers her, dresses her in the clothes his wife left behind, and tries to educate her in American literature (Hemingway). Yet he is eventually repulsed by her failure to become a “good” copy of his wife. In the end, he rejects her as embodying the qualities of “underdevelopment” to which he unconsciously resigns himself but nonetheless condems.

Taking sexual and revolutionary politics as a departure point (and shifting the topical focus to the Muriel Boatlift of 1980), the film portion of Douglas’s Inconsolable Memories offers a series of scenes shot and projected in luminescent black-and-white cinematography that are actively edited in the process of projection through the simultaneous and alternating play of two film loops of unequal length. We see fragments of Sergio’s narrative (his wife’s departure, a prison scene, driving in a car with a friend, walking the streets) and only slowly are able to piece them together into any rough narrative. The loop throws narration back onto the viewer who is forced into a position of trying to make sense of individuated, fractured yet connected scenes: for those familiar with Desnoes’ novel and Alea’s film, Inconsolable Memories manipulates us, making us aware of our own impulse to impose order; for those unfamiliar with these core texts, there is a greater disorientation and struggle for narrative coherence. There are a limited number of variations and order is certainly evident, but it is a resistant order, one that demands active cognitive effort. This effort, required by the perpetual and performative montage, is further enhanced by the lack of insight offered by the film’s cinematography and mise-en-scène: lighting and acting are not revelatory but hide, block, or obfuscate knowledge and identificatory access; scenes are in darkness, acting is flat, voice-overs are unrevealing and unstable as they shift with loop changes, thus pointing to the fiction of access to internal thoughts. We are not invited to share Sergio’s journey or frustration, but are offered it as a puzzle for observation.

In frustrating the spectator’s access to any notion of narrative truth or coherence, Inconsolable Memories, like Douglas’s other film and video works, explores, through material form (in this instance film loops), the structures of narration (narrative causality, economy and efficiency, resolution, theatricality, and totality) and their relations to epistemological and ideological configurations of belonging, identity, memory, and the situatedness and dislocation of the subject in time and space? Fracturing, but not eradicating causal narration, this active montage makes the shifting of time and place explicit to the viewers in ways that accentuate the blending and mutating of past and present, reality and fantasy, and history and memory. Heightening artifice (flattened acting style, obvious back projection, and constructed sets) to emphasize the disjunction between characters and their settings, the film also accents the dislocation of Sergio from others, from himself, and from causality. Alienated and apart, the protagonist of the film is not so much a reflection of place (Cuba) and situation (revolution, emigration, political struggle), as he is the site where the inconsistency and irresolution of these events and movements opens up. In making narrative scenes—isolated objects that can be re-ordered—the film’s looping scenes ask us to question what the role of radical acts and events (such as revolution, or on a personal level, divorce, abandonment, imprisonment, violence) is when the consequences of apparent radical change are so indeterminable, mutable, unfixed. If narrative becomes random, disjoined and continuous, and absences or fissures become foregrounded rather than muted, as they do in Douglas’s work, where do we place the subject of narration and enunciation, and his or her relation to historical, geographical, and phenomenological time and space

This dislocation and structural absenting of causal narration and fixed order is equally evident in the photographs in the exhibition which, I would argue, offer not an addendum, elaboration, or enhancement to the film projection but another mode of fissuring and separation. The relationship between the photographs and film loop appears at first uncertain: one is characterized by saturated colours and tourist-like shots of empty spaces (landscapes, rooms, buildings) and the other by dialogue and dramatic action, black-and-white 16mm, back projection, constructed sets. Although these oppositions might invite an interpretation of cross-pollinating supplementation (the photographs providing the real settings that are absent from the film, the character action of the film filling in the human absence of the photographs), I would argue that the final result is more akin to that of magnetic forces pushing the interaction apart and opening a void; the relation between photographs and film does not fill in the space but constructs it as structural gap, one not easily resolved by an interpolation of people and place. The people and places do not cross over. Rather, both offer equally disorienting visions of the split between identity and location.

This structural gap that pulls apart human interaction from historiographical space and geographic place is significant in a work that addresses the fundamental irresolutions of history, memory, or identity; past and present are continuous, like the film loop, and not resolved, finalized, or hypostatized by the changes of place, politics, or departure. We are not shaped or determined by our surroundings but occupy them in complex and shifting ways. Thus, the installation suggests that these more aporetic dislocations, enactments, and outcomes are not linear, determined, or even logically contextualized retroactively. The constant and continual temporal reorganization of the film loop reorients causal understandings of events and actions: whether individual or national, historical causality and linearity are exposed as structural impositions. We are presented with a series of “could haves” that emphasize potentiality, arbitrariness, chance, and constant change. Douglas thus offers us a vision of the jarring confrontations of memory and history, self and other, and past and present in these images of post-revolutionary Cuba, confrontations that are, like the active montage of the film loop, still in play, still indeterminate, and ultimately inconsolable.

Image: Stan Douglas, film still from Inconsolable Memories (2005)

About the Author

Lisa Coultard is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of British Columbia. She has published articles on Abigail Lane, Kiki Smith, and Jenny Holzer and is currently working on a book project about courtly love and postmodernism in cinema.

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