Liminal Attractions

The virtual visions of Marco Brambilla
by Tom McCormack  posted June 3, 2011
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Jumping off a successful career directing commercials, Marco Brambilla first came onto the cultural radar in 1993 as the director of Demolition Man, a dystopian sci-fi action flick set in an anemic, whitewashed future torn asunder by visitors from a manlier, more vital past doing battle and fomenting class revolt. In this film's world—the U.S. circa 2032—swearing is illegal, sexual intercourse has been replaced by somatic social networking, all restaurants are Taco Bells (they won the infamous "franchise wars"), and music lyrics are nothing but corporate advertising. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is President.

An entertaining action movie, Demolition Man is interesting in hindsight for a number of reasons, not least of which is the way it seems to presage Tea Party resentment of touchy-feely liberalism. The movie is distinguished, too, by its visual design. Sleek, smooth, decked out with bright whites and shiny metals, the movie looks forward to what we might call the functionalist techno-minimalism typified by Apple. Obviously doing work-for-hire (he didn't write the script), Brambilla nonetheless made a provocative film to which we might compare and contrast his subsequent work. 

Plenty of movie directors have started their careers making experimental films and gone on to make features (George Lucas and Gus Van Sant come to mind). A handful of others have moved back and forth (like Curtis Harrington), or moved between experimental fare and industrial films or more technical work to pay the bills (like Stan Brakhage and Pat O'Neill). Few filmmakers have started in Hollywood and moved on to short-form, non-narrative filmmaking, which is what Brambilla—whose first solo museum show is currently at the Santa Monica Museum of Art—did in the late '90s.

Brambilla's 2001 short Sequel drives home the strangeness of his career path. In the film, he rephotographed a shot of Sylvester Stallone from Demolition Man, letting the footage burn in the gate, effacing the star's image and creating glowing, shifting, biomorphic patterns on the screen. It's easy to see Sequel as a kind of exorcism of Brambilla's previous career, a literal attempt to make refuse of the past. Appropriating Hollywood footage is often seen as an impish, defiant gesture. It can represent an attempt to transform kitsch into avant-garde, or to take the market-ready, the pre-packaged, and turn it into something mysterious, personal, humane. The meaning of the gesture is always tied up in economics: to appropriate from Hollywood is to take something that cost a lot of money to create and turn it into something that cost very little money to create. Appropriating footage from your own Hollywood movie tosses many of these categories up in the air. What is usually assumed to be a cultural transgression takes on a very intimate tone, the personal and the political irrevocably knotted.

Brambilla began working out his trademark obsessions before Sequel, in a group of films from the late '90s. The 1999 duology Approach and Getaway establish his abiding interest in the interstitial spaces of contemporary life. Getaway consists of footage shot from the front of an airplane as it's landing set to what sounds like '70s elevator jazz. Brambilla manipulates the speed of the footage, creating a rallentando and distending a transitional moment, from air to ground. The jazz music is a bygone era's idea of the exotic, mocking dreams of transformative travel even as, by calling up an earlier time, it creates a sense of foreignness and translation. Getaway also evinces a concern with durational aesthetics and predictable patterns that is carried throughout Brambilla's work and that aligns some of it with structural filmmakers from the '70s (reviewing a show of his in 2001, Roberta Smith said in The New York Times that his work could be considered "structuralist video").

Approach plays as the aftermath of Getaway. Showing us ultra-slo-mo footage of passengers exiting a plane, Approach is a movie about longing that is cold and analytical, a voyeuristic work about people who are gazing intently. Capturing a different moment of change than Getaway—from inside the plane to outside it, instead of from in the air to on the ground—Approach shifts the focus from the mechanical to the interpersonal; the subjects look something like Warhol's screen-test victims gone fugitive, their gazes somehow unnerving and blank, never calling to mind total presence, never settling into absolute absence.

Cyclorama, another Brambilla piece from 1999, also creates a sense of being in between, placing side-by-side nine shots from the windows of rotating restaurants, syncing the sunrise in each to create a synthetic patchwork of a virtual morning. A meditation on commercial architecture and its use of land- and cityscape, the film could also be said to reflect on "time-space compression," a term used by David Harvey and other theorists of postmodernity to talk about the way distances are collapsed within our mental life, the very continuity we assign to disparate locations itself responsible for a certain degree of disorientation. Cyclorama is in a way about the map of the world carried in the heads of the characters that inhabit Getaway and Approach.

Half Life (2002) inaugurated another Brambilla obsession. The installation juxtaposed surveillance footage of people engaged in a multi-player first-person shooter with footage from the game itself. Even more disquietingly voyeuristic than Approach, and once again concerned with an experience of potential liminality, Half Life brought to the fore Brambilla's abiding interest in new technologies. Much of his subsequent work, including Civilization (2008), Cathedral (2008), Power (2010), and Evolution (Megaplex) (2010), incorporates and explores digital imaging tools.

Within the art world, Brambilla's use of these new technologies is distinctive. Many artists engaged with new media use technology in angled, even purposefully obtuse ways. The recurrence of artwork using outmoded 8-bit hardware provides a salient example. Another good example is Cindy Sherman's recent photographs, which use Photoshop in obvious ways to exaggerate the very postures and facial features the software is usually used to conceal. Brambilla's use of computer-enhanced imagery takes a more straightforward approach to craft. He seems to embrace techniques that in the work of many others are self-referential subjects of skepticism or critique. His recent work is marked by a desire to create real beauty out of the glossy surfaces and bright, shining colors of the digital universe.

Nowhere is Brambilla's unique relationship to CGI imagery more apparent than in Power, his recent collaboration with Kanye West. No other video, not even the epic West-Hype Williams collaboration Runaway (2010), has found such a spot-on visual analog to West's outsized persona. Brambilla creates a tableau with West at the center, shamelessly appropriating a wide array of art-historical tropes. According to an accompanying text, the visuals were "inspired by Michelangelo's frescos in the Sistine Chapel," although he said in an interview that the opening is "kind of a reinvention of a neoclassical painting." I take Brambilla's blunted use of allusion to be a commentary on the emptying out of cultural signifiers in contemporary life. He suggests as much himself, writing that the video is a portrait of "an empire on the brink of collapse from its own excess, decadence and corruption."

This apocalyptic view of the contemporary world is reiterated in Civilization, which portrays Dantean layers of the universe stacked one on top of the other. Each world is a tableau and a digital smorgasbord, with a congestion that recalls nothing so much as the more pageant-like sequences in Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002).        

A similar work, Cathedral, is on display now at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of its Real Virtuality exhibit. For Cathedral, Brambilla captured over 150 hours of footage from the Toronto Eaton Centre megamall and complexly layered and processed it to create a continually shifting tour of consumerism. The movie, as the title suggests, draws on an idiom of Christian iconography, and particularly, in terms of color, texture, and shape, traditional stained-glass windows. Cathedral knits together many of Brambilla's concerns. The mall is reminiscent of the airport, revolving restaurant, and video game café; it collapses boundaries, proposing to synthesize various forms of consumption and leisure; it has the tendency to create both elation and extreme ennui. The mall's escalators and elevators lend a natural shape to the digital patterns Brambilla weaves throughout, and they also give the viewer durational cues; each character's ascent or descent plays as a miniature structural game. And Brambilla's use of computer graphics is some of his most virtuosic: he stacks and colors the images to turn the wide open spaces of the mall into a labyrinthine inferno, the shoppers forever lost, stuck, going in circles. 


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Collection Metronome Foundation, Barcelona
Cathedral, by Marco Brambilla
Photo Gallery: Liminal Attractions


January 15–June 12, 2011 Real Virtuality
May 21–August 20, 2011 Marco Brambilla: The Dark Lining


Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.

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