time, myth & timelessness

keith gallasch: ben ferris, penelope

Penelope

Penelope

BEN FERRIS’ 80-MINUTE DRAMA, PENELOPE, IS AN UNUSUAL WORK THAT PROVOKES REFLECTIONS ON CURRENT FILM AND VIDEO PRACTICES, NOT LEAST BECAUSE THIS INTENSELY VISUAL FILM WILL HAVE ITS PREMIERE AUSTRALIAN SCREENINGS IN A MUSEUM AND AN ART GALLERY. IT’S A FILM THAT ASKS YOU SURRENDER TO THE MOMENT.

With video art revitalised by relatively inexpensive, software-rich new technologies in the 21st century, art galleries have increasingly become sites for reflective viewing of works short, long, epic and looped. As per Christen Cornell’s encounter with Yang Fudong’s No Snow on the Broken Bridge and Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (p46), and in the tradition of video art, the viewing experience is supremely visual while cinematic expectations regarding character, dialogue, plot and structure are elided or subverted.

On the other hand, the experimental and feral heritage of video art increasingly sits beside sleek monumentally projected digital works, like those of AES+F and Isaac Julien in the 17th Biennale of Sydney, that are nothing less than cinematic in their scale and immersiveness. In fact the material distinction between film and video is fast disappearing, while not a few artists refer to themselves as filmmakers and leading visual artists—like Sam Taylor-Wood, Steve McQueen, Julian Schnabel—are making feature films.

Ferris’ film is a variation on the mythological tale of Queen Penelope waiting 20 years for the return of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, from the Trojan War. In that tale she is surrounded by 108 suitors who have assumed the hero is dead. Penelope defers choosing a new husband by focusing on the weaving of a burial shroud for her father, unravelling it nightly to extend the time of its making. Finally, she sets the suitors a near impossible archery task that the returning, disguised Odysseus executes with ease. He then kills the suitors.

Ferris’ telling is broadly true to the myth and sometimes to its detail (Penelope’s painful prayer to the god Artemis for death, for example), but in the end makes a surprising departure, one not to be revealed here but consistent with the film’s focus on Penelope herself. For the most part (save for cutaways to the loutish, gluttonous suitors), the film is realised as a sumptuous visual embodiment of her state of mind, shifting from recollection to reverie, delusion and nightmare, a condition amplified by the film’s real time unfolding and slow tracking shots. The camera’s long lines of movement and circlings suggest the omniscience of a storyteller who never speaks and is in no hurry to inform or guide us—there is little narrative propulsion and only spare dialogue. This is a film of the lived moment, quite apt for a contemplative gallery screening.

The slow pacing of the film correlates with a sense of timelessness in the late Jennie Tate’s expert production design. Penelope and her maids appear as if from a Classical frieze or a Renaissance painting of the same (glimpsed in the film’s opening), while the suitors seem attired like Florentine gentlemen. Odysseus in a trench coat smokes a cigarette and Penelope plays a 19th century piano. The elegant, modestly grand house has an Italianate openness and is imbued with a sense of mystery—perhaps the gods are at work, particularly towards the film’s end when huge timber doors are slowly buffeted then blown open and an aura glows around a determined Penelope. A single crow sits ominously on her windowsill. Wolves howl out of the emphatic sound design. Penelope’s silken weaving glows in the night like a spider web—and is unthreaded like one. The world of Penelope is an oddly disparate but simultaneously coherent one.

The formal camera work, its considered, painterly gaze and the symmetries of the film’s design are counterpointed by what they frame: Penelope’s disturbed state—her loneliness, her anguish over the sickness destroying her beloved geese, her imagined lovemaking with Odysseus in an autumnal forest and the nightmare of the suitors raping her maids (enough to soon stir her to action). It’s an effective dynamic in a film that warrants patient attentiveness to yield its subtleties and pleasures.

Penelope, director Ben Ferris, director of photography James Barahanos, production designer Jennie Tate, composer Max Richter, producer Irena Markovic; Australian/Croatian, 80mins; Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney, June 15, 6:30pm, free; Art Gallery of New South Wales, June 25, 2pm, free

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 22

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 June 2011
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