No one senses the cultural anxieties stealthily at work in mainstream movies better than Toronto video artist Aleesa Cohene. Her work consistently isolates and focuses on cinema’s hidden truths and emotional currents. Forget the “clatter and clutter” of plots, characters and locations, our movies are really about fear, alienation and power.
Her 2007 work Something Better, installed at YYZ Gallery until Sat, Apr 18 as part of Images, is a searing portrait of two parents unable to connect to each other or their own emotions, where all their pain and frustration is observed and absorbed by a child. With hundreds of short scenes edited from dozens of movies Cohene presents a father, a child and a mother on three separate screens — each an archetype immediately familiar. The dialogue is minimal but the pauses and postures are bursting with hurt and misunderstanding. At one point, responding to the mother’s hopes for her child’s “normal” future, the father uses the definition of love from William Hurt’s character Eddie Jessup in the 1980 film Altered States: “What she means is that she prefers the senseless pain that we inflict on each other over the pain that we would otherwise inflict on ourselves.”
There is a glimmer of hope at the end of this seven-minute gem, in shots of the child playing music, in the solitary creative act — something which Cohene does brilliantly.
Totally opposite in tone but offering another fascinating look at the cultural roles we inherit is the 12-minute short Holy Smokes from US trans performance artist Loren Hartman, aka Asher Hartman, aka Larry Pirata. With Hartman playing various male characters in bad makeup, the video initially looks like a jokey, lazy and disposable video all too common in the art world. But there’s magic in the mess.
Hartman is playing for keeps. At one point one character seems to be raping the viewer, repeatedly saying, “Ya, you want some of this?” as the camera tilts down his torso. But Hartman wouldn’t fetishize the phallus like that — the scene is about the man’s shoes. Dangerous and demented.
Holy Smokes is a witty dissection of patriarchy that ends with a series of nonsense words and silly grunts — even language and labels are deconstructed as tools of oppression. Heel-arious.
Holy Smokes screens in the very queer program I Want to Wrestle with Your Mind in the Long Grass at 9pm on Thu, Apr 9 at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen St W).