The Migrating Forms of James Fotopoulos
by Maximilian Le Cain
James Fotopoulos is one of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic and stubbornly independent filmmakers at work today. To me, he also remains one of the most inspiring. From February through to April, Microscope Gallery and Spectacle Theater in New York are hosting a series of screenings and events dedicated to his work including the premiere of a typically disconcerting new feature film, The Given (2015), featuring Sophie Traub.
In 2004, I wrote an account of his cinema for Film Ireland Magazine. As a salute to the events currently happening around his extraordinary body of work, we are making it available online for the first time. (We are also posting a review of Dignity (2012) from 2013, which can be read here.) In the decade since its publication, he has more than lived up to the promise his early films displayed.
– Maximilian Le Cain, March 2015
‘American Independent Cinema’: the term has been much used and abused over the past decade and a half. Everyone has their own definition. I like the most reductive one, the most idealistic: not simply economic independence from Hollywood, but independence of thought; the independence earned by a filmmaker with the courage and intelligence to completely rethink cinema, to cut to its very essence and remind viewers what the medium is capable of in the hands of a true visionary. Harmony Korine. Abel Ferrara. And now an extraordinary phenomenon that goes by the name of James Fotopoulos. He works in Chicago, far from the publicity and compromise of the cinematic mainstream, on budgets small enough to buy him complete artistic freedom. Although not yet thirty years old, this prolific artist has already created a body of work large enough to match and even exceed what many filmmakers produce in their entire lifetimes. So far, in addition to parallel careers in painting and music, he has made around sixty films and videos; many of them feature-length and the large majority shot over the past four years. None of these works is without interest and at least a dozen of them are either masterpieces or come very close to being so. Although gaining an increasing profile in the American art world, Fotopoulos’s cinema still seems all but unknown on our side of the Atlantic. That this neglect be redressed is in the interests of anyone whose vision of the moving image extends beyond or falls outside the limitations of multiplex entertainment.
Migrating Forms (1999) is the title of one of Fotopoulos’s five feature-length 16mm films. It could also stand as an overall title for his entire filmography. His constant theme is the mapping of sometimes obscure metamorphoses that take place in the body or mind, or between bodies and minds. Births, deaths, rebirths, evolving sexualities, transferrences and invasions of identity; mysterious psychic voyages that link mutating bodies and landscapes; human incommunicability engendering new modes of psychic development and interaction; these are the events that he perceives without ever explaining. He seems concerned with the phenomenological apprehension of an immanent state of flux and mutation present in all bodies and objects, living and dead.
These impenetrably irrational forces are made even more disturbing by not being subject to a cognitive hierarchy that favours human comprehension. Even the post-Eraserhead Lynch at his most visionary posits at least the illusion of normality and its other from which an audience can initially get its bearings. With Fotopoulos we are frequently plunged straight into an indefinable consciousness that remains completely foreign to us, yet unsettlingly intimate. It is a unique angle of observation on the human psyche that, in regarding it, seeks changes and movements that the object of observation might be completely unaware of, even as they impact on him or her.
Behind the anxiety of our frequent inability to discern the logic or purpose of these transformations lies the perhaps deeper anxiety about the origin of the perspective from which they are viewed. Who is watching, who is invading? It is very possibly the image of a schizophrenic mirroring of a self in a constant search for new forms and new identities more appropriate for expressing the spiritual truth of a state of breakdown, isolation and, sometimes, familial dysfunction. It is in this technique of psychological displacement generating parallel narratives that his kinship with David Lynch becomes apparent. Yet whereas Lynch maintains the stable basis of a recognisable self to deviate from, Fotopoulos provides only the pathological narrative, which he refuses to consider secondary to any conventional structure. In fact, it is impossible to take it for granted that the beings peopling some of his more recent videos are even human. A major part of his project seems to involve dissolving the boundaries that define a human – including a secure individuality – as a being apart from the rest of existence.
Due to constraints of space, coupled with the size and complexity of the body of work under discussion, generalisation in this article is inevitable. The rough division of Fotopoulos’s cinema into four groups, which I will now undertake, is to be understood as little more than a shorthand method of conveying the overall outline of his extensive oeuvre. The divisions are: 1) the five 16mm features; 2) the earlier video features; 3) the more recent video features from The Fountain (2003) onwards, and 4) the short films. Of course, the four groups overlap with each other considerably. Of the four, the category ‘short films’ is the most eclectic. Many of the shorts tie in with the concerns of the longer work being created more or less simultaneously, and almost invariably draw on the same thematic concerns; however, they are generally faster-paced, possessing a formal lightness absent from the slow, deliberate, sometimes claustrophobically contemplative features. The 16mm features are Fotopoulos’ most conventionally narrative work; ‘conventional’ only in as much as he uses recognisable forms of narrative to work with and transform: the serial-killer film in Zero (1997), the horror film in Migrating Forms and The Nest (2003), film noir in Back Against the Wall (2000) and the small-town coming of age film in Families (2002).
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
Zero, Fotopoulos’s longest work, announces its director as one unafraid to plumb the depths of emotional and physical agony and loneliness, and to spare the audience nothing in so doing. It follows the disintegration of a young man, the film’s only character, isolated by an horrific cyst growing on his arm. In the solitude of his subterranean home, full of stuffed animals and pornography, he engages in racist and salacious rants before falling in love with the top half of a mannequin. The film shifts between the enclosed space of his rooms, the darkness of his nightmares peopled by hideous human mutations, and idyllic rural landscapes through which he occasionally wanders. Although shot mainly in austere long takes, Zero shows Fotopoulos occasionally experimenting with the texture of the film frame through scratching and otherwise marking the surface of the image. Although he expanded upon this practice in shorts like Growth (1999) and A Room (1999), it which would later find a more sustained echo in his re-filming of video footage. An almost unbearably harrowing emotional experience, Zero is perhaps the most transparent of Fotopoulos’s films. Although not actually dealing with a serial killer, in depicting the anti-hero’s disturbed condition it draws on certain clichés associated with murderers from that genre. In his earlier work particularly, Fotopoulos often makes use of what could be considered visual clichés; especially those born of an art schoolish fascination with rather tired images of the abject. Yet time and again he proves his capacity to reinvigorate them, not by applying a sophisticated postmodern knowingness, but by imbuing them with such emotional force that they appear fresh. This achievement owes much to his hypnotic emphasis on protracted duration. For example, in Families, what could be more laughably shopworn than a group of earnestly solemn teens sitting around glumly recounting instances of animal death that they have witnessed? Yet as the scene progresses, a grimly engaging theatricality emerges in this seemingly endless litany that gradually seeps beyond its immediate subject and ultimately comes to powerfully evoke a chilling cosmology of brutality and abjection.
Migrating Forms is the most elusive and perhaps the finest of the 16mm features. On the surface it is an eerily repetitive series of minimalistic scenes detailing a young man’s sex life. He repeatedly sleeps with a woman afflicted with an increasingly monstrous growth on her back, which he may or may not have noticed. After the hysteria of Zero, Migrating Forms offers a creeping sense of With Fotopoulos we are frequently plunged straight into an indefinable consciousness that remains completely foreign to us, yet unsettlingly intimate unstated poisonous lethargy; a banal normality grown sickly. Reality becomes oneiric; pray to mysterious, undefined forces of dread. The barriers between states of consciousness dissolve. This is taken further in his only colour 16mm feature, The Nest. A more violently disruptive, fragmented work than Migrating Forms, it follows a couple in the wake of a traumatic car accident that unleashes mysterious psychic forces. Both films play out within the enclosed space of the protagonists’ apartments, and use the increasingly claustrophobic repetition of similar scenes to great effect.
Back Against the Wall is Fotopoulos’s most conventional film; a trilogy of noir vignettes centred around a young woman who becomes disastrously embroiled in the adult industry. Families confronts the bleakness and emotional violence of small town life with a fragmented series of episodes drawn mainly from the lives of young people, but also including poetic images of sheep grazing in wintry pastures. The performances in all Fotopoulos’s films are stylised to a greater or lesser degree, often veering towards mechanical understatement. Families is particularly bold and impressive in terms of the stylised use of dialogue: Bressonian deadpan speech is juxtaposed with scenes played out in a singsong delivery reminiscent of the Straubs’ Sicilia; other scenes are enacted with an emotive naturalism that belies the detached stance of much of Fotopoulos’s cinema.
PAINTING WITH VIDEO
Fotopoulos’s first set of video features represents his most pared-down work. Closer to painting than narrative cinema, they work on a graphic level and are invariably wordless. Their structure is formal and even a little rigid: A limited number of images form a simple visual cycle often linking body and landscape in a sometimes troubled sexuality. The female nude is always central to these tapes. Filmed paintings by Fotopoulos also frequently feature. A common trope of Fotopoulos’s video work is the re-filming of the image from a monitor, causing a painterly loss of sharpness, replacing precision with visual agitation, and foregrounding the ontological instability of the video picture. This is an ideal technique for heightening the sense of subterranean flux running throughout his films. It is particularly evident in The River (2002), the simplest and most beautiful of these early video features, which simply follows the movements of a model whose body is (re)filmed so closely that she appears as abstract swirls of colour and video grain. This treatment of the video picture has been further developed in the imaginative use of fuzzy, lo-def 8mm tape in many of his more recent works. The later videos represent Fotopoulos’ most unique and complex work. The spoken word is back with a vengeance, not as synch-sound dialogue but as often monotonously pitched, electronically distorted voiceovers that make the narrators sound like agonised, malfunctioning computers. The Fountain, a masterpiece, marks the point of transition, combining the structural rigidity of the early videos in its image track (which largely comprises long-held, increasingly macabre still and radically slowed down tableaux) with an anguished voiceover detailing the usurpation of an identity. Jerusalem (2003), another of Fotopoulos’s major achievements, announces a freer approach to image and structure. It makes inspired use of rough, 8mm video in capturing the tormented intimacy of people and objects in a single room. The actors’ often frightened gazes and overtly non-naturalistic poses and gestures work in concert with the nightmarish snatches of confession that repeat themselves hypnotically on the soundtrack. The female nude is still prominently featured in these later films, sometimes with masks or elaborate make up. Repetition and spatial claustrophobia continue to be crucial to these tapes’ power. More recent videos such as The Pearl (2004) and Esophagus (2004) have transcended even those works, bringing into play elements such as children’s drawings, and pushing the alienation of narrative subjectivity to new heights.
These later videos still form a coherent, developing group. His most recent efforts seem to mark the end of this phase. They are more varied in style and draw on elements from across his entire oeuvre. They include the dizzying, rather Brakhagian shorts Places (2004) and The Lighthouse (2004); Monroe Blues (2004), an inspired retelling of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart from the victim’s viewpoint (Fotopoulos’ only previous foray into literary adaptation being a brilliant interpretation of Coleridge’s Christabel, 2001); and the plaintive Harry’s Passion (2004), which combines the recognisable small-town reality of Families with the accomplished visionary introversion of more recent films. Wherever his career goes next, it is already clear that James Fotopulos may well be one of the few creative giants of early 21st century cinema. Keep an eye on him.
About The Author:
Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and film critic living in Cork City, Ireland.