Jodie Mack's The Grand Bizarre is exclusively playing on MUBI from April 9 - May 8, 2020 in MUBI's Undiscovered series.
It is a great pleasure to share The Grand Bizarre with you on MUBI this month. This gesture signals a goodbye kiss to something on which I’ve spent a lot of time in the past seven years (both making it and representing it in Q+A). We had already scheduled this date before the pandemic. But, now that we are here, the film has an almost entirely new meaning for me. It’s always been about motion, spread, and mutation. But, of course, in recent weeks, the functionality of the textile has foregrounded itself as we fight over materials with which to clean up messes and examine fabrics for their density, absorbency, and filtration potential to make masks. In fact, I had to ask myself this morning, “OMG, is The Grand Bizarre about coronavirus???” when I picked up a roll of paper towels buried in the bowels of my closet only to find the diamond pattern that is kind of the star of this movie embossed into the sheets. All of this is also to say, I will do my best here to describe the film, but I am fully distracted and, probably like you, terrified, angry, and overwhelmed with a simultaneous sense of hope felt at once with an unnerving sense of powerlessness. Should I make no sense at all, I have conducted several interviews about this film (here; here; here; here; here; et cetera) that might help contextualize things in greater detail.
With the completion of my 2013 film/performance about my family’s poster business (“Dusty Stacks of Mom”) came a bundle of international invitations to film festivals, art centers, and universities. I already had a parallel body of work involving fabric, and many friends suggested I meet with other friends on the road whose other friends made fabric or sold fabric or taught fabric or… The film emerged, at first, as if by accident (or destiny). The experience of traveling revealed the rapid homogenization of products and ideologies as a result of the global economy: a supply chain to sameness that allowed one to buy a Pashmina, listen to Drake, and grab a grande matcha latte in an alarming different amount of places worldwide. As soon as I began to approach the idea of a global and historical network, the piece quickly became about meaning and how we make it. So, I chose to focus on textiles, language, and music to tease out these ideas of components (threads, phonemes, beats) and systems (weaves, syntax[es], phrases) to represent this complex storm of materials and ideas.
The film, finished in August 2018 and captured on 6 continents, fuses the formal curiosity of abstract animation with the intellectual and theoretical concerns of ethnography, archeology, narrative, and magical realism. Interrogating the possibilities of animation and documentary and pushing animation beyond illustration of data or historical re-creations, the film exploits animation’s inherent incompatibility with cinéma vérité. Frame-by-frame performances and improvisations feature choreographed moving objects amidst observational portraits of daily life. The film chips away at the caked layers of reflexive appropriation surrounding us in our domestic objects only to find… an infinite amount of layers, an unreachable center/truth. In The Grand Bizarre, the textile (and its richness in function and form) provides a nucleus from which we can celebrate and critically analyze labor and human accomplishment.
Because the labor on which we rely to survive constitutes a large part of our individual identities, it is the ultimate lens through which we see the world. Animation, to me, is one of the most profound vehicles through which we can think about labor. It is possibly the most tedious art form of all time. It’s industrial history started at the height of Taylorism and its quest for efficiency. And, its historical trajectory and the technological developments that impact this quest for efficiency reveal clear lessons about the human impulse for mimicry (and the lengths at which humans will perform labor to achieve it). As Marx would say, the more labor the worker produces, the more alienation the worker experiences. So, what does this mean for the animator, whose labor, by some definitions, seeks to represent “reality”? The animator (who, as a laborer already experiences a disconnection to the “species essence”) becomes trapped in the feedback chamber of embellished representations of new realities upon which we project our fantasies.
The idea of a feedback chamber/hall of mirrors/vortex became central to the way I approached many of the motifs within the film. For this reason, you will find that this movie has no agenda to “teach” you anything. I edited The Grand Bizarre according to the structure of many woven textiles: with two fringes at the top and bottom, repeating larger rows with representational motifs, and smaller pattern rows in between. Each song takes on the role of one of the motif rows, adding on concerns as we move along: textiles traveling (borders!? Pangaea?!?), textiles in nature (time!); textiles and language (meaning!); textiles and education (physical and intellectual labor!); textiles and computation (Jacquard looms and binary code!); et cetera. Revealing how the motifs of these textiles both signify and dilute our definitions of what constitutes “culture” (How did this ancient pattern get to this suitcase from World Market or Pier 1 imports???), this journey collects fragments of visual and sonic inventories of globalized identity. Like the patterns in question, the film is an amalgam of styles and histories: an animated musical essay pop album documentary travelogue about meaning, work, and technology.
Sonically, the piece utilizes pop music to foster the analogy of components, systems, samples, and the echoic confluences of the exotic and the everyday. Avoiding interviews, talking heads, or inter-titles in pursuit of excavating new strategies for conveying information via cinema, the film explores music and language alongside the sonic elements of the subjects (textiles, machines, landscapes) and vehicle of study (travel). Like fabrics, music and language both spread through trade and colonization. Patterns are music. And, in some cases, motifs, textiles, and patterns are language. Language and music also serve as important elements of travel, as other languages are musical to outsiders. Soundscapes featuring rhythmic pattern play with chopped up parts of speech (specifically, the International Phonetic Alphabet) alongside percussive use of field recordings fuse minimalist, mainstream and musique concrete traditions. Phoneme threads tangle and untangle into new patterns atop car horn symphonies and electronic drum kits. The rhythms emulate the patterns of the fabric, routing the progression from nuanced regional musical distinction through to the lens of auto-tuned pop.
The bright colors and imitation of pop music certainly obfuscate the themes at hand here. The musical itself carries the weight of insurmountable lightness, stigmas of twee and camp. But The Grand Bizarre is actually somehow a dance number and a horror movie. In “The Mass Ornament” Siegfried Kracauer argues that we can learn more from a culture or period in time by looking at the remnants of mass production than we can from looking at the high art. He’s talking about Tiller Girls—young attractive women arranged like anonymous Christmas tree ornaments in wedding cake-esque choreographed formations. These share a direct linkage to the practice of experimental animation—be it Busby Berkeley scenes sharing visual elements with Viking Eggeling or Mary Ellen Bute films playing at Radio City Music Hall before feature films. These dazzling, spectacular showcases prod at the roots of abstraction as we’ve traditionally thought about it, which, on many levels, requires [the illusion of] anonymity, a clean slate of “meaning-less-ness” and “pure” formalism. My previous work has taken this to heart—blurring the boundaries between the perceived distinctions between the cultural and intellectual value of what is high art, what is craft, and what is commodity through a variety of material experiments.
But The Grand Bizarre complicated all of that because it added Knowledge, and thus quantification, into the ideasphere. Researching the histories of many of the textiles, nations, and manufacturing processes brought to light that the very essence of “nomenclature” is, essentially, paving the way for the idea of intellectual “property” and ownership. (Think about the phrase “coined the term.”) What we’d always considered “Abstract Art” (something “decorative” and “formal” and “kind of nothing”) was always some subset construction of whiteness that had never been a new invention and had always been a stolen and violent act claiming its own purity. The feedback chamber became an ambassadorial pendulum swinging back and forth between utility and decoration, the Avant-Garde and the mainstream, what we once considered east and what we once considered west, the perceived America and actual America. The film gets lost in the contradictions it discovers and purposefully neither identifies nor reaches any destinations to amplify this sense of being adrift in the weight of the world. The textile unveils a pile of unsolvable problems involving cooperation across a disparate landscape of methodologies and moralities that I fear might possibly be irresolvable (as evidenced by our current healthcare crisis) but still hope to rectify. I still find myself asking: will there be ever enough textiles to clean up all this blood, this ever-spreading mess?