WORDS: BEN MEDINA
IMAGE: MALCOLM PHILLIPS
Gabriel Abrantes is a Lisbon-based filmmaker. His work, both solo and created in collaboration with other artists, like Benjamin Crotty, was recently the subject of a retrospective, “Friends with Benefits: and Anthology of Four New American Filmmakers”, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I went to a program called “Slow Learners”, which was a series of ambitious, funny, off-putting early projects from Abrantes and Crotty. In his introduction, Abrantes explained that they got the title “Slow Learners” from Thomas Pynchon’s first collection of short stories, “Slow Learner,” and that both sets of sophisticated juvenilia are characterized by “awkward, dumb moves.” This early work is energetic and genuinely inventive, a set of five early short films, all shot on 16 mm film stock.
They are: Olympia, parts I and II, Visionary Iraq, Too Many Daddies, Mommies, and Babies, Liberdade, and Baby Back Costa Rica. Olympia is a very funny and transgressive riff on Manet’s painting of the same name. The first half is an incestuous psychodrama between a prostitute (Katie Widloski) and her off-screen brother (Abrantes), and in the second half; a lonely prostitute (Abrantes) is comforted by his maid (Widloski in blackface). Visionary Iraq is a reality TV inspired satire of geopolitics made in an art gallery in Portugal Abrantes and Crotty play all the roles, and incest again rears its head as a narrative component. Too Many Daddies, Mommies, and Babies is a burlesque melodrama about environmentalists sacrificing the rainforest that they may have a child.
Liberdade is a 17 minute romantic epic featuring erectile dysfunction and star crossed lovers, an Angolan boy and a Chinese girl. The goal here, Abrantes stated, was to counterpoint a possible post-American future (Angola is a former Portuguese colony which had refused lots of Western aid and had a relationship with China) with the most American love story. It’s a visually ravishing work, financed with money from a gallery and, oddly enough, Toyota. The love narrative of the film belied the racist reality, however. Abrantes described the bitter schism between the native Angolan population and the Chinese population. The actress had a bodyguard from the Chinese embassy whose primary duty was to ensure she wouldn’t kiss the Angolan boy, and Abrantes reports that she kept suggesting alternatives to the script where he dies. Baby Back Costa Rica is a segment of a larger work. Three girls toss around anti-Semitic slurs in the back of a car, and then it becomes an atonally scored montage of cars and girls and swimming pools. Abrantes’ work is characterized by a fixation on melodrama and soap opera, taking genre, twisting it, pushing it as far as possible to expose its political undergirding, while still trying to engross and seduce the viewer. Method sat down to chat about cultural capital, blackface, and queerness.
METHOD: Could you talk about what you were doing when you were 18, what your interests were and how you pursued them? And could you also talk about finding an audience and creating a space for your work within a broader context?
GA: Ok, so the first question—during high school I was mostly painting, I did a few videos, but mostly I was very dedicated to painting, with an extremely strenuous output of like 200 paintings a year, something like that, something very crazy. And then I went to Cooper Union. I was still mostly painting but also starting to do some installations and some other stuff, trying to explore different mediums, etc. I started getting into video, and it’s only senior year, when I’m 21, that I started getting into film, and 16 mm, and that I started approaching cinema in a more serious way, and then it became very dominant very quickly. That’s primarily due to Jim Hoberman, who was my film history teacher at Cooper. I took two courses with him and they were pretty fundamental. One was a general history course. He went from Birth of a Nation and Melies forward The other course was specifically on film noir. His reading of it was that it was a thinly veiled metaphor for the Cold War or anticommunist feelings. I think those two courses were really formative for me, they got me thinking about how these mediums or genres or forms were consciously or unconsciously political. Whether they were thinly veiled anticommunist propogranda, or vice versa, yknow?
I really wanted to work with cinema as this political machine. I got very interested in figuring out how or why art was meaningful. Are you just painting paintings and putting them in a museum or a gallery? Maybe they’re funny, and then they’ll get sold and funneled into this economic system that has no sort of political resonance. Or it does only in that it’s upholding an elite, in some way.
METHOD:What’s really interesting is that you’re not using cinema to talk about X thing, but you’re looking at the forms of cinema and finding what’s meaningful or resonant within those.
GA: There’s a book that really influenced me that, that’s like a huge tome of sociological theory, called Bourdieu’s Distinction. He analyzes everyone’s cultural habits or tastes, like what you’re willing to say in terms of how many composers you know. And so he goes through whole swathes of people and does sort of a census. He sees what sort of concerts people like or what sort of music people like, and he makes graphs that say “if you earn under ten thousand dollars, under twenty thousand dollars, thirty thousand, etc, what are your tastes? And how do you express those tastes? He asks like a poor factory worker, “what kind of music do you like?” The guy will list some things, and then Bourdieu will ask ask what classical composers they like. The worker will only list five, but he knows the average is actually greater. The guy working in the factory is worried about mispronouncing Tchaikovsky or something, so he’ll actually limit his knowledge. Then there’s the bourgeois ambition to state that you know more. You might only know ten, but you’ll try to pretend that you know 15 by saying “ah you know that Russian one who did the Nutcracker”.
METHOD: That’s so interesting. You don’t have the shame of messing up, you know that if you screw up you’re fine.
GA: Exactly. And this is really inspiring and also really soul crushing. It made me very afraid of myself and everyone around me, but it also made me realize just how consciously we’re using this cultural capital and these cultural artifacts that we put up on our walls at home, the couches we buy, whatever it is—where we choose to live. It’s part of this game of domination, of keeping people poor and keeping people rich. It’s the old Hegelian game of the master and the slave, and that’s how identity is created. Somebody needs to hit someone else on the head for there to be two identities. I think my films in some sense—that’s why I grabbed the history of nude painting or the history of blackface, to take those forms and fool around with them and twist them. I see myself as a disrupter of these trends, I try to misuse the codes, I try to scramble the code or whatever. Like I’ll take this Manet painting and I’ll treat it disrespectfully but also in a very weird queer way.
METHOD: That’s interesting because when I watch your work and work like it, like say a Jack Smith movie or something, I understand that there’s disruption but I also take tremendous aesthetic pleasure from all of the beautiful games being played intellectually. Do you think it can be both things? For example, the helicopter shot from Liberdade, where Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes is playing—on the one hand it’s aware of the legacy and meaning of the tropes it’s working with, but on the other hand it’s also so fundamentally satisfying and beautiful.
GA: yeah yeah yeah. And also—this might be because we’re two privileged white guys in New York, but we’re not disgusted by that building (that the helicopter shot of the two lovers floats away from), we find it fascinating, that sort of National Geographic “Ah look the crazy way people live” or whatever. But I think that is questionable about us. And I hope, the kind of movies I’m doing now—I hope I don’t censor myself too much, because then I think things become a bit lame. But I do want to be a bit more responsible with that stuff, where if I’m doing a move like that, I’ll have to make the twist stronger or harder, have something else in the film. A part of that helicopter shot we didn’t show—there were babies on that last floor. Without their parents, hanging out, five year old kids or whatever. And if you show that it’s extremely scandalous. I think what you’re asking about is this love/hate thing, which I often play with, and it’s one of the most satisfying things. Like, I love that Manet painting. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I treat it with the utmost respect. In some ways this is masochistic, like I’m trying to criticize myself. I’m criticizing myself and where I come from.
METHOD: But also where you come from opens up this vast variety of tools, extending through time and space. This huge amount of things you can access because of your context.
GA: What do you mean?
METHOD: Because of going to Cooper Union and your access to these extensive painting and art making resources, you’re able to pull on these cultural touchstones and reference these things and you’re able to know who Douglas Sirk is and who Jack Smith is and know who Pasolini is.
GA: yeah yeah, of course. I think this has been an attitude I’ve gotten at Cooper, that I’ve tried to develop since, which is this love of amateurism, which is “ok I don’t know how to make movies, I’m gonna have a more radical or irresponsible or innovative approach to filmmaking because I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t learn the 180 degree rule or the 30 degree rule, etc. Continuity wasn’t an issue, acting wasn’t an issue. I didn’t know anything so I was free to experiment. This comes from having painted for so long, I got to a very stale place where I was very good technically at painting. I could paint photorealist stuff fairly well. The content wasn’t that bad, but at a certain point technique overwhelms your capacity to explore different paths. I tried to do that with cinema. I’m always trying to find something that I don’t dominate so I can explore more.
METHOD: Also, with cinema, because there are so many avenues and so many components to putting together a movie, there’s such a multiplicity of ways to fail interestingly. (Flipping through notes) This page just says, “What’s up with the blackface?” What is up with the blackface?
GA: I think there were two things going on. To start at the more generally, I think that move, which is obviously a provocative, transgressive, punk, art school brat move, has aged poorly, especially in the current political climate. Considering race relations in the states and the Black Lives Matter movement, I think it’s much more scandalous now. Ten years ago, when they showed it in New York, I remember there wasn’t even the minimum of scandal that it’s provoking these days, and understandably. I think also, I was 21, y’know?
At the same time, what I was trying to do—I had this vision of history as… an antiwar film or antiwar piece of music can then be used to promote war. For example, Apocalypse Now is supposedly an antiwar film, but it’s screened by the US Army for troops going to Iraq. There’s videos of them cheering as the helicopters come to drop napalm. So there’s this irony that the intended function no longer works. Another example—antiwar Beethoven symphonies used as Nazi marches. I saw this as liberating. Both of these are negative examples. But I thought I could do it the other way as well. So I took this blackface, this extremely racist tradition at the heart of the birth of cinema. Because what really interested me about movies is how emancipatory they were. Originally they were made for the upper classes in New York, but the upper classes totally rejected them, they thought it was too much machinery and that wasn’t too classy. So cinema got relegated to Nickelodeons on the lower east side. You’d pay a nickel to see two people kissing, or a woman lifting her dress to show her leg. I was like “ok, so this is the people’s art of the 20th century.” This is amazing, but it comes with all these artifacts of burlesque theater, which is an extremely racist tradition, with lots of blackface. So let’s use this racist tradition that is the birth of cinema, and then link it to Birth of a Nation, and then let’s twist it. Let’s queer this tradition, and misuse it to a point where it loses the original function of being racist. I think it worked 10 years ago, but maybe less now, which is curious. Queering blackface to the point where it no longer works.
METHOD: Like in Too Many Daddies, Mommies, and Babies, there’s burlesque environmentalism, where you’re expressing this concern but using all these extreme distancing techniques, but they become moving. Like in the birth scene—everything’s red and it goes on for so long but it becomes genuinely affecting. Do you think about affecting people in that fundamental emotional way?
GA: We definitely want to touch people. This feature length movie Fort Buchanan, which is screening at 7, was inspired by this Lifetime show Army Wives, about the women who stay back when the men go to Iraq. And they’re all drinking their Chardonnays out of like extra large goblets, American style. My collaborator Benjamin Crotty took a lot of the dialogue from that TV show and translated it to French, and then made it queer, like some of the Army wives are guys, or whatever. He’s making this thing, which is a super meta comment on American TV, American imperialism, and translating it into the Old World, France or whatever, and a lot of the jokes are about how it doesn’t work. Army Wives in French is a flop. But I know with Ben, I helped him a little bit on the script, giving notes or suggestions. His huge hope was to have a moving scene. You would get attached to these characters. Within this fiction, stylized, meta way of making movies, at heart he did want people to be laughing or to be touched. So I do think that’s very—that is our ambition. We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want people to be aware that there is an apparatus, while simultaneously being eaten by the apparatus and forgetting it. Which is a hard game to play. I think I’m getting further and further from it. It comes a lot from our love of 70s meta authors or whatever. Like Barthelme or Pynchon, how they’re always fooling around with that. But we do want to touch people, at the end.