Carnal Knowledge

The self-conscious acting and use of direct address bespeak an aesthetic less orthodox Dogme than MTV's Real World, with a nod to Jerry Springer. Whenever the characters quarrel, you wait for the studio audience to chime in. There's a particularly American happy ending as well: Sam strolls along Hollywood Boulevard, wondering where her life is going but never doubting that she's intrinsically interesting.

Avant-garde master Ernie Gehr's first foray into DV is innocuously titled Cotton Candy—although given the piece's implications, he could have easily gotten away with something as weighty as Montage of Attractions, The Myth of Total Cinema, Carnival of Souls, or That's Entertainment.

Sentimental education: Denicourt, Auteuil, and le Besco in Sade
photo: Catherine Cabrol
Sentimental education: Denicourt, Auteuil, and le Besco in Sade


Directed by Benot Jacquot
Written by Jacques Fieschi
Cinema Village
Opens April 26

Some Body
Directed by Henry Barrial
Written by Barrial and Stephanie Bennett
Lot 47
Sunshine Theater
Opens April 26

Cotton Candy
Directed by Ernie Gehr
Museum of Modern Art
Opens April 30

Gehr uses a mini-digital recorder to look back on the Machine Age in the form of San Francisco's soon-to-be-shuttered Musee Mecanique. For slightly more than an hour, Cotton Candy documents this venerable collection of coin-operated mechanical toys—including an entire circus—mainly in close-up, isolating particular details as he alternates between ambient and post-dubbed (or no) sound. By treating the Musee's cast of synchronized figures as puppets, the artist is making a show—but is it his or theirs? Gehr's selective take on the arcade renders it all the more spooky. There's a sense in which Cotton Candy is a gloss on the moment in The Rules of the Game when the music-box-collecting viscount unveils his latest and most elaborate acquisition. (It also brings to mind the climax of A.I.: The DV of the future tenderly regards the more human machine of the past.)

The Musee's assortment of space-bending, raucously interactive video games is shown only obliquely, and relatively late in the film. Gehr prefers to focus on the outmoded and archaic. Thus, Cotton Candy pays particular attention to the old-fashioned, hand-cranked photographic flip-books known as mutoscopes. In what could be a movie from the 1890s, a secretary fights off a masher; later mutoscopes have a cowboy belly up to the bar, a boat drift toward the rapids, and Harold Lloyd dancing on a skyscraper girder. How many nickels have dropped in the slot? How many times have these images flickered? Crumbling before our eyes, the worn-out motion pictures still work!

In addition to the persistence of Persistence of Vision, Cotton Candy's other main concern is the effect of sound, synchronous and otherwise, on the moving image. Gehr extracts a wry pathos from having his puppets "sing" the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 hit, "If I Had a Talking Picture of You," and even manages to wring a degree of defamiliarization when the mechanical band appears to strike up a melancholy passage from Erik Satie. A frequently heard player piano appears on-screen for a "sync event" closer—the mindless reiteration of a melody programmed perhaps a hundred years ago, by someone long dead.

Gehr has always been interested in the ephemeral, and Cotton Candy could well be his most preservationist film. Also the most epic—the automata provide the filmmaker with his largest-ever cast. (This is also the first time he's ever had to pay his actors.) Appropriately, the Museum of Modern Art, which commissioned the work, is projecting it straight from disc—it's not really a film, but a "film" about film.

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