E uno plura: Close-Up on James N. Kienitz Wilkins' "The Republic"

The most radical effort to date by American James N. Kienitz Wilkins, whose cinema occupies an unusual space in the contemporary art scene.
Michael Sicinski

MUBI is presenting the world premiere of James N. Kientiz Wilkins' The Republic from July 4 - August 3, 2017.

The Republic

The cinema of James N. Kienitz Wilkins occupies an unusual space in the contemporary art scene.  Most of his films are the result of some sort of conceptual procedure, a decision either to treat his original footage according to some abstract system or to apply his own logic to found material. And yet, there is a plainspoken quality to Kienitz Wilkins’ work that smooths out any potential “art damage” or intimidation factor. Kienitz Wilkins has successfully adapted some of the most critical weapons in the arsenal of experimental cinema to produce a stark poetry of the everyday.

Kienitz Wilkins’ newest “film,” The Republic, is quite possibly his most radical effort to date. For starters, you will notice that I put the word “film” in quotation marks, since it is no easy matter to discern just exactly what medium The Republic really belongs to. Making its debut on MUBI, The Republic will be experienced on laptops and iPads, HDTVs and classroom projection systems. But I suspect it will also eventually find its way into art galleries, as well as onto public radio. But how can this be? Is The Republic an experimental film? A James Turrell-style light sculpture? A radio play?

As the old Saturday Night Live sketch put it, relax: The Republic is both a floor wax and a dessert topping. A three-hour-and-thirty-minute narrative film, The Republic is imposing, and not just in terms of its length. It is also the densest, most text-intensive project the artist has created to date. This is notable, because if you are at all familiar with Kienitz Wilkins’ work, you know that he can be quite the talker. His films are unique in the avant-garde realm for their reliance on storytelling, something not always welcome in a subculture that tends to prize the visual above all else. He frequently adopts a dark, sardonic tone in his tales, aided and abetted by an arch, hard-boiled delivery.

For example, Kienitz Wilkins’ “Andre Trilogy” finds the filmmaker applying his two key strategies—conceptual artistry and storytelling—in tandem. The first film, Special Features (2014), involves a young man being interviewed about a mishap during a catering gig involving a fellow employee named Andre. We faintly hear Kienitz Wilkins asking questions off-camera, and soon, strange jump-cuts begin disrupting the vérité atmosphere of the recording. When another man, and then another, replaces our original interlocutor, we know we’ve been played. 

The second film, TESTER (2015), consists of Kienitz Wilkins telling a rapid-fire story from the perspective of a private eye, while found footage from a recording test in a video lab plays on the image track. While we hear Kienitz Wilkins, an improbable Philip Marlow manqué, delivers his rat-a-tat monologue about his appreciation of the inexplicable Euro-American ambiance of Panera Bread, video technicians futz with cords, seemingly unaware of their self-surveillance. TESTER offers a few surprises, as does the final “Andre” film, B-ROLL with Andre (2015), another story-based film, this time apparently providing the true story of the elusive Andre from a guy who did time with him in the joint. While Kienitz Wilkins seems to be conducting an interview with a young man whose identity is obscured, we eventually figure out that this interview, much like the ones in Special Features, is not what it appears to be. But while Kienitz Wilkins again employs found footage to make B-ROLL seem like a coherent narrative, what is incontestably real is the insight and intricacy of the film’s script. In it, Kienitz Wilkins successfully creates a character, Andre, who has deep philosophical convictions and some wild ideas about video equipment. “The Andre Trilogy” is a well-constructed suite of experimental films, but it is as a writer that Kienitz Wilkins truly shines.

Kienitz Wilkins’ next two films expanded on the promise of the “Andre Trilogy,” expanding the connections between appropriated visual materials and the filmmaker’s own unique voice. Indefinite Pitch (2016) is a short film consisting entirely of still black-and-white images. Where the “Andre” films bore family resemblances to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson and Travis Wilkerson, this film harks back to the great Chris Marker and his La jetée. A film he made for the Berlinale, Kienitz Wilkins frames the narration as though he were pitching a film set in Berlin. Soon, he reveals that he means Berlin, New Hampshire (budgets being what they are), and that the photographs are of the Androscoggin River. Needless to say, by this point not everything is as it seems. But Kienitz Wilkins’ narration is a Gordian knot of puns and misdirections, repetitions and double-backs. (The film is accompanied, Wavelength-style, by an ever-escalating tone, an “indefinite pitch.”) If brevity is the soul of wit, Kienitz Wilkins hit the jackpot with this one.

More politically serious and formally adventurous, his feature film Common Carrier (2017) is a kind of labor-conscious version of Max Ophüls’ La ronde, wherein a group of friends and acquaintances in New York are struggling with what it means to be artists in the age of neoliberal capital. Kienitz Wilkins sets his inquiry against the backdrop of a strike by Verizon mobile employees, and the omnipresence of data technology, cell phones, and especially wi-fi serve as a metaphor for the all-pervading pressure that capitalism inflicts on our daily lives. It must be said, Common Carrier is not an easy film to watch, nor was it intended to be. It exhibits a kind of negativity of which I suspect Theodor Adorno would have approved. There are always at least two competing sound streams, and every narrative event is superimposed over an alternate angle of the same subjects and locations, not doing the exact same thing—not two simultaneous images in Cubist time, but an undecidable ‘before’ or ‘after’ to the main event.

In light of this progression, The Republic should not come as much of a shock, but still one has to wonder: how far can the definitions of the moving picture medium be pushed? Simultaneously an example of the “slow cinema” that is in critical vogue at the moment, and the most verbose, mile-a-minute polylogue Kienitz Wilkins has ever produced, The Republic is both serious as a heart attack and a kind of dialectical joke. There are real stakes involved in the work, to be sure. With a script by Robin Schavoir and performed by fifteen actors (including Kienitz Wilkins himself), The Republic is a five-act play about libertarian utopianism and its folly. The piece involves a group of semi-separatists who have formed their own barter-and-contract based “nation” in isolation, declaring themselves a nation of free men and women. Due to a betrayal by a charter member of the group, the community must contend with Linda (Nour Mobarak), a rich young woman whose money they might need in order to survive the winter. 

The play is tough to listen to. For one thing, libertarians are weird. Schavoir’s script capitalizes on this, emphasizing the men’s distrust of emotion, discomfort with sexuality, and naïve belief that all human difference can be negotiated away through contract law. In explaining that they don’t really believe in hospitals, Linda asks main character / future paramour Gavin (Anthony Aroya) what would happen if he were attacked by a bear. His answer? “Well, I wasn’t careful. I made a bad choice.” (Lest we forget, hardcore libertarians want to dismantle all government oversight. USDA? Nah, if enough kids die from meat tainted with e-coli, the market will correct it . . . eventually.)  

So The Republic is extremely abstract in parts, and it is sometimes hard to keep track of all its characters. That’s not to say that it isn’t worth the effort, but in a sort of comic analogue to the characters’ unadorned stoicism and anti-aesthetic biases, the visual track of The Republic is a black screen which, over the 215-minute running time, very gradually turns to white. Your screen will span the entire gray scale while you listen to a piece of five-act readers’ theatre about economic responsibility and individualism. I can’t help but wonder if this is what going on a date with Ayn Rand felt like.

Kienitz Wilkins isn’t just playing a joke here. Nor is he simply visualizing the libertarians’ absolutist thinking as an ironic journey across many shades of gray. The Republic makes an implicit comparison between the idealist theories that underpin libertarianism (Mill, Locke, Hayek) and the methodologies of modernism in the visual arts. One could easily imagine Frank Stella or Barnett Newman titling one of their canvases “The Republic,” because modern art of the Clement Greenberg variety assumes a centered, self-sufficient, universal subject—the same subject deemed fit to engage in the trucking, trading, and bartering of the libertarian utopia.  

The Republic is a film that finds Kienitz Wilkins exposing a crisis at the center of 20th century thought. The universal subject, that rational being whose perspective is so “natural” that his existence (always "his") goes without saying, necessarily requires an endless string of verbiage to explain himself. But then, when confronted with such beings, we ask them to explain themselves and their universal concepts, and more often than not we are met with stony silence. So in a way, The Republic answers the question posed by desperate comedians everywhere: “Are you an audience or an oil painting?”

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James N. Kienitz Wilkins
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