Quest for What: Video by the HalfLifers

Publication Type:

Journal Article




Film Comment (1999)


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"When running from an exploding fireball, leap toward the camera and you'll be OK!!!"
--Matt Groening, 'A Brief History of Cinema'

You might think it's a Superfund site were it not for the freeway overpass that slices through in the near distance. Two figures spill out over a pile of rocks, dressed in the kind of industrial jumpsuits worn when handling hazardous waste. Their movement suggests a Mack Sennett comedy, circa 1914 - the color, straight out of a Fauve landscape from a few years before. The pair go through a calisthenic drill - in preparation for what? Perhaps to steel themselves against the harm to come. But there's no time to speculate, as this manic display of energy fast reaches its peak; they grab onto ropes fastened to an unseen vehicle that takes off in a cloud of dust.

Aboard is a cameraman whose shadow creeps now and again into the bottom of the frame. The image remains fixed on these figures, now being dragged on their stomachs and holding on for dear life until one, then the other, lets go.

The next scene, they're indoors. Over the next several minutes the two perform a desperate kitchen witchcraft on one another, working to restore their strength and to access their memories. The refrigerator is emptied of lunch meat and cheese slices - the stuff of commercials is brought forth to sustain the action of this "adventure/drama". At one point the bearded one cries, "Listen, I don't know who the hell you are, I don't know where I'm supposed to go, and I'm not feeling great, so will you please tell me what's going on !?!" With histrionics at this level, you might think that a hurtling asteroid is involved.

The scenes I've just described are from a 1997 videotape by the HalfLifers entitled Actions in Action. This Bay-Area duo, consisting of Anthony Discenza and Torsten Z. Burns, shuns the niceties of "broadcast quality" in favor of bare-bones consumer-grade technology, bad signal and all. They've cultivated a veritable garden of video's negative attributes - shaky camera work, sulphurous greens, bleeding reds, ghosts, glitches, you name it - and assembled them all in one place. Their tapes emit a feeling of toxicity, as though seen through a poisonous cloud, and this is wholly in keeping with the scenes we see before us. But poison, as we know, doesn't necessarily negate beauty; another tape of theirs titled Fear of Rescue contains a gorgeous opening sequence that transforms a manic jungle gym performance into a riot of hyperkinetic color.

And all throughout, movement is altered even further; image and sound are shown on continuous fast-forward, in some tapes leaving a trail of horizontal lines across the screen to remind us that it's done by the crudest means possible. Their movements are given much the same effect that undercranking had on early silent comedy.

The HalfLifers' work belongs within a lineage of performance-based video that includes Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, and Martha Rosler as just a few of its best-known practitioners. These artists' work from the early 1970's was marked by an attempt to establish a one-on-one relationship through the performer's direct address to the viewer, using the medium's intimacy relative to film as a foundation from which to work. There was, then as now, no getting around video's status as a bastard stepchild of TV; work that faced this fact most directly either established an antagonistic relationship to its parent through parody or overt criticism, or strove to highlight TV's deficiencies by being what it wasn't, formally, ideologically, or otherwise.

The HalfLifers differ from their predecessors in that they don't play to the viewer, but rather to one another, in fine buddy-movie fashion. They offer us reenactments of World War III, after the water supply has been sullied and there's nothing but bright-colored sports drinks left for sustenance. That war will not be fought with nuclear bombs, as is often supposed; the enemy, the weapons, the reasons, remain just outside our grasp.

Outside theirs, too. Some vague, undefined mission is what threads through one tape and on into the next (they now number well over a dozen). Beginnings and endings are abrupt. New props, new settings appear each time around, not unlike a good episode of Roadrunner, and yet there's no predator, no precariously balanced boulder, not a single stick of dynamite - but what, then? Clues are scattered throughout, though they never quite add up. We're left instead with a string of fleeting resemblances, a list of which (though by no means complete) includes: quarterfinal contestants on American Gladiators; rabid squirrels; early Happenings; early Devo videos; nearly-forgotten silent film comics; an Outward Bound excursion gone wrong.

Situations mutate without warning; just when things feel within reach they wriggle loose again. A double chase takes place: one, between the HalfLifers and their unknown nemesis, and another, between ourselves as viewers and the object of their mission. But look a little closer: it's all pure play. A scene from Return to Rescueworld shows a car in which the two enter in through the door, climb out through the sun roof and then reenter headfirst, only to squirm back out again through the hatchback. This is typical of the never-ending flights from false predicaments that they themselves have created. Culled from hours of documented improvisation, they move through a series of imaginative spaces that most of us abandoned back in adolescence. Their conviction in doing so means the difference between pure foolishness and a kind that's almost purposeful, done with an intelligence that they're not afraid to hide.

Typically, the acrobatics are physical; their recent Control Corridor, though, shows another side to their hijinks. Slipping freely in tone between editing session and Hollywood story conference, they wreak havoc on the conventions of shot-countershot as their jargon-laced exchanges turn oddly self-reflexive, a comic subterfuge that's the linguistic equivalent of bicep-flexing before the mirror.

Much of what I've described so far-- narrative disjunctiveness, ill-defined conflict, reinstatement of the "fourth wall"-- suggests a regressive character to their work. And for those looking for familiar strategies and patterns to be played out, these videotapes are sure to jar the sensibilities of both zero-degree art video adherents, on the one hand, and devotees of stock narrative structures on the other. It wasn't that long ago that videomakers were dead-set on defining (to paraphrase critic David Antin) "the distinctive features of the medium", not only in contrast to TV, but also to film; as with any new medium, its practitioners felt the need to justify its existence.

Now, these issues have receded, and the differences in media mean a lot less; film and video intermingle in more ways than you can count. Recent feature films like Celebration and Love God were shot on video, for reasons esthetic as well as financial; much of current TV programming, from sitcoms to music videos, is initially shot on film. And if the boundaries between media appear fluid, on the viewing end they've eroded to a point that purist's positions are rendered largely untenable. My first encounter with the HalfLifers' work was through the Walter Reade Theater's state-of-the-art projection system, something much closer to an ideal film-viewing context than, say, the recent experience of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 21" Sony. The point here is to suggest that the range of screening conditions we're bound to encounter varies so widely as to skew the artist's conception of their audience and reduce former certainties to guesswork at best.

But even more important than the calculated effect of an artist's work on his or her audience is the cumulative effect of a brief lifetime's worth of film and TV, seen through a channel-changing, multiplex-hopping framework of missed beginnings, misunderstood motives, and wandering attention. Through fortuitous, discontinuous viewing habits, it doesn't take long to realize a common denominator between Mannix and The Man Who Knew Too Much, or, for
that matter, The Man Who Knew Too Little. The HalfLifers work not from some misguided notion of an ideal viewer exposed to nothing but the most edifying; instead, they've formed a realistic assessment of the constituent elements that are the sum total of our moving image experience, and, having acknowledged that power, set out armed with humor to dramatize the results on our psyches.

Little boys imagine adulthood as a succession of close calls and heroic deeds; many of us grown men spend much of our time disappointed that it's not the case. We go to the movies, and a few of us even make them, to avoid this very fact. A lot of the stupid things men do otherwise - drive fast, drink too much, play paintball, get in fights - are done under the spell of the little movies playing inside our heads. Discenza and Burns feel those little movies are worth looking at in their own right; for the HalfLifers, there's nothing left to do but an awkward, funny dance through the negative space surrounding that disappointment.

This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 1999 issue of Film Comment.