Culture | Look again

“Unclassifiable” at the Darling Foundry shakes up conventional movie viewing expectations

Sometimes we watch films just to get swept away by the thrill ride, by the tear jerker, or by the love story that punches us in the gut. When we’re feeling particularly edgy, we rock our narrative socks a bit by watching other films that take us away from traditional continuity editing à la Tarentino. And then there are films that disengage us entirely from our filmic comfort zones; these are the kinds of films being screened at the Darling Foundry’s exhibition, “Unclassifiable.” Running from September 4 to October 5, this four-week series of short films is thematically grouped into four exhibits essentially designed to encourage the viewer to do some cinematic soul-searching.

The films in the first series, “Pop Goes the Video,” which ran from September 4 to 10, each presented an irony or paradox that left the viewer slightly unsettled by the way that our traditional film-viewing sensibilities had been jostled. This is precisely the goal of the exhibition: to examine how film is used, what sort of conventional forms it has evolved into, and what creative limits mainstream media have boxed around it.

“Pop Goes the Video” set the exhibit’s tone for engaging an active viewer – sometimes jarringly so. The memorable claymation pornography short, or the one of a typical meatmarket bar scene presented with placid, almost anthropological objectivity spring immediately to mind. This week’s series, “Re-Sampling Hollywood,” picks up where “Pop Goes the Video” left off.

This second series more directly turns our Hollywood-informed cinema expectations inside-out and makes us shift our understanding of how we ourselves passively perceive film. “Unclassifiable’s” films are like one big talk-back session to the Hollywood machine – they separate us from the patterns we don’t realize we apply when watching films, leaving us to examine these mainstream blueprints more objectively. In “Re-Sampling Hollywood,” film as a medium is examined, questioning modern cinema’s visual tendencies, and encouraging us to really look at how we perceive the entertainer.

One of the films features every single one of Jack Nicholson’s lines from The Witches of Eastwick edited back-to-back. The borderline hilarity – flashing images of Nicholson’s trademark drawling, seductive growl suddenly cut to him projectile vomiting in a church service – conjures interesting questions about the way an aura of celebrity influences our reaction to a film. Nicholson seems suddenly ridiculous. Granted, any movie that chops out every single line except for those of one character is bound not to make sense. But just as in the silent, tongue-in-cheek Rambo montage two films afterwards, we are reminded of how often we watch the celebrity and not the film at all.

In another film, comprised of many shots of celebrities all talking reverently about an ambiguous “Him,” the viewer initially assumes that they are describing some televangelist-type preacher. About halfway through, we think that perhaps they are actually referring to a great director, before we ultimately realize that each interviewee has been talking about an entirely different person. Again, our conventions of perception are shaken out like a musty rug as these clips decontextualize our assumptions.

Once the celebrity figure has been thrown to the dogs by Nicholson and Rambo, we’re invited to question our perception of entertainers in another way, but with the same message: are we watching the story or the entertainer? In Cowboy Russ, we become increasingly less interested in Russ’s story than in the way he tells it – why on earth is this nondescript guy in an undershirt elaborately describing a fight scene from The Magnificent Seven? Ultimately, we just see his vulnerability as he stands by himself for a solid minute, awkwardly watching the camera and waiting for it to cut as he gradually becomes aware that it is actually himself – and not the story – that’s being watched.

This being said, “Unclassifiable” is not necessarily out to shred box-office hits with a knife sharpened by some holier-than-thou art film snob. The exhibit instead aims to reveal to us our carefully groomed cinema palates, and invites us to re-examine the way we personally view film, to understand the creative parameters of modern cinema, and to shake us loose of our viewer passivity.

“Unclassifiable” is at the Darling Foundry til October 5. See for details.