By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
This disconcerting indeterminacy between filmic narrative and timeless iconic modes is central to the intensity of "The Passions." Most of the videos bear absolutely no clues as to the particularities surrounding the extreme emotional states being portrayed. I ask the artist about this dearth of extraneous detail.
"I felt that I didn't want to get into the story," says Viola. "The first thing you ask is, 'Why are these people doing this? Why are they crying? Why are they screaming?' That's a human response. You want to know what their story is, and I knew early on that I wasn't interested in representing that in the work. In fact, working with the actors, I didn't know a lot of the time what they were doing within the space of their craft, and didn't feel I needed to probe that at all. The traditional paintings of the crying Mary are a perfect example — they're about your story. In the Middle Ages, people would go to the cathedral to go to the special sacred Madonna if they lost a child or loved one, or something happened and they were distressed, and they would literally bring their story to the image, and let that play out that way. So I was interested in that — I don't know what the word would be — empathy maybe? When you leave stuff out, there's this great opening that happens — of creativity, basically. That gap gets filled with creativity."
"So the more information you withhold from the story," I venture, "the greater the viewer's capacity for identification."
"Yes. And in conventional Hollywood films that does work. The classic thriller is all about holding back, about withholding and then revealing information at key points along the narrative line. And so that obviously heightens involvement. I guess the difference between that and what I do is that . . . I never reveal it." He laughs. "You get to the end and you still don't know."
"What a rip-off! Then it starts over again."
"Right! But I guess what that does — and I'm just thinking of this as I'm saying it — is it makes it clear that the focus is on something else, that the direction, and what's being studied or looked at, is not that. It's not that story, it's not that content that we read about every day in a newspaper, in a novel or in a movie."
"Do you think that your work offers something that is intentionally excluded from mainstream popular culture?"
"Yeah, I think that one of the driving engines of not just filmmaking and media imagery today in the larger culture, but in so many facets of culture is . . . time. You can look at conventional training in film as a study in the economics of time: How do you tell this story in a means that is economical, that propels the story forward, that doesn't sit there, and when the sun goes down you don't turn the camera toward the window and watch it go down for half an hour? That's one of the reasons that Andy Warhol's films were so extraordinary, because he just turned the camera on the Empire State Building for eight hours. It sounds like a gimmicky thing, but if you ever watch that or one of his other films, it's incredibly palpable, and strange. I think that the whole notion, since the development of the mechanical clock in the 14th century, of time being portioned and cut up into identical units day and night, doesn't accurately describe our inner experience. Anyone who's ever been awake at 3 o'clock in the morning and goes through their daily life at 3 o'clock in the afternoon knows damn well that awake at 3 in the morning is not the same as 3 in the afternoon at your job. So that subjective sense of self, of space, of time, has been diminished in the great push that civilizations and societies have had to universalize and quantify experience through the scientific method."
"Why doesn't that diminish your commitment to technology?"
"Well, if you look at how technology is evolving, I think it's very clear right now — and not coincidental — that a lot of recent technological development is centered on America, and what America represents, i.e., individualism. The whole big push in very recent digital technology with computers is about the individualizing of these machines so that you can customize with a gazillion menus and set it up exactly the way you want it, and have these tools reflect and contour to the individual who's using them in the same way that a hammer in the Middle Ages would take on the shape of the hand of the carpenter. So there's this dual thread in technology where through mass production and the industrial revolution it stamps everything out all the same, but on the other hand it's also representing a way that individuals can encounter the world on their own terms. I have a lot of faith that technology is part of our evolutionary process. I think the dilemma of technology is the dilemma of the human being."
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