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Art/Cinema: "Faustus's Children" (O'Marah / Jackson / Jones, USA, 2006)

It's often forgotten from the vantage point of the 'cinephile,' but the intersection of art and cinema takes different forms. "Art cinema," as we frequently think of it, is a distillation of cinematic storytelling to the service of 'art' in the sense of aiming to make substantive statements about the world. Lost in this conversation is the reverse process - the adoption of cinematic principles in order to make a statement from the vantage point of 'art' as conceptual practice. The two traditions runs parallel but neither overlap nor speak the same language; their formal and conceptual concerns respond to entirely different historical trajectories. What's generally called "experimental film" offers a form of 'third way' fusion rooted in the cinematic but often deconstructing form in a way more common to visual art practice.
In spite of the points of connection between these approaches to art-cinema intersection (and clear evidence of artistic influences across these lines), these three approaches seem separated by the narrative and formal prejudices of their respective audiences. I don't mean to use 'prejudice' strictly as a form of reproach; it also implies a self-knowledge of one's aesthetic and thematic interest. Though the walls between these modes of filmmaking are both fluid and artificial, they can offer us ideas about the ways in which cinema can be approached as an artistic practice.
Michele O'Marah, Tim Jackson and David Jones's 43-minute video work Faustus's Children is an example of 'art practice' that takes the form of the moving image. Originally screened as part of a gallery exhibition in 2006 that included its (entirely handcrafted) sets and other artifacts, Faustus's Children played in unaccompanied cinematic form at the 2008 New York Underground Film Festival.
Faustus's Children is a pastiche woven from a diverse set of influences, including Whit Stillman, Suspiria, Edgar Allen Poe, Goethe's Faust, Bertolt Brecht, Crime and Punishment, Vincent Price, The Secret History, Jean Baudrillard, and Douglas Sirk. The obviousness of the film's reference points is one element that calls attention to the synthetic, constructed nature of the work, but other mechanisms are more primary in this distanciation. The handcrafted sets, like the superfluous "s" in the film's title, are unheimlich by virtue of being noticeable; while the objects themselves are 'background' objects, they are foregrounded by their artificiality (they appear as if constructed for a middle school play). The acting style is nonnaturalistic in the same way as the sets - not so strange as to be off-putting, but strange enough to create a slight sense of discomfort with the characters. The use of color works the same way, emphasizing an "almost-right"-ness that still seems somehow "not-quite-right" (see: the shades of purple on the wall of the cabin).
These distanciation techniques seem to be used primarily as weapons against the later stages of Baudrillard's concept of image-meaning in Simulacra and Simulation, commenting on a system of image-making that hones artificiality to the point of hyperreality. The filmmakers use this self-conscious hyperreality to comment on class oppression and the wishful-thinking state of contemporary radical politics. The film takes place in a country house, to which the characters have retreated in the aftermath of the conspired murder of a former friend. It seems that this friend's sin was one of aspiration combined with misrepresentation - he gave these characters the impression that he was of their class rather than an interloper. That this treachery of misrepresentation leads to murder identifies class as an expression of willful violence (and vica versa). The one character who seems not to have been a part of the conspiracy in a substantive way is the lone female character, who characterizes herself as a Fourierist (a variety of utopian socialist thought). While she seems as much a member of the ruling class as her peers, her political identification suggests that only she finds her position of privilege problematic. The characters are killed off, one by one, in ways that Poe or Argento could be proud of, filtered through the willful amateurism of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. The supernatural force that causes their deaths also works as a revolutionary wish-fulfillment device, a sort of class-revenge deus-ex-machina that implicitly examines the nature of revolutionary hopes in the present era. The politics of this device become clear when the Fourierist is resurrected at the film's end, as sunny day breaks over the previously stormy forest.
Faustus's Children uses its integration of political commentary with supernaturalism and a Baudrillardian aesthetic mission to reclaim pastiche as a form of political commentary from the "blank parody" / "dead language" paradigm identified by Frederic Jameson in his work on postmodernism. By making these aesthetic parameters the primary 'characters' of the film, the film situates itself as an example of 'art practice' via the moving image; it's a fully realized conceptual work that lacks a human element, but in so doing brings its political subtext to the fore, exploring the artificial hopes of both cinema and contemporary leftist zeal - but leaving hope for a brighter morning to come.

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