Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Time We Killed

"Terrorism got me out of the house, but the War on Terror drove me back in"

(Jennifer Reeves / 2004)

This film is doing a number of things at once. I've arbitrarily numbered a few that were either the most prominent or simply what I found to be the most interesting.

1. The Time We Killed struck me first as a genre film. It belongs to a tradition of self-conscious art film narratives, handheld and lo-fi, and of a hyper-subjective rendition of a specific place and time. More specifically, the strand of work that emerged in the mid-to-late eighties and early nineties, from Van Sant's Mala Noche to the work of Sadie Benning (and probably early no-wave Jarmusch). Reeve's mastery of this form makes her experimental work fresh and familiar, offering that delicate balance of self-examination and total narcissism, with the chunky beat language of a sophisticated poet and the accidental pleasures of a brazen student film aesthetic. But don't get me wrong, Reeves is an accomplished artist and I don't mean any of this negatively.

2. It's a tad on-the-nose to report that this functions as a time capsule for immediate post 9/11 anxieties, but then again, that is a major function of the film's poetics. But why this work is so engaging in this regard is its separation of documentation and expression from a coherent politics of its narrator. We learn nothing of substance from her political asides (Bush is evil) that is not reflective of those garden variety flaccid sentiments of anti-Bush politics. Reeves gives us a glimpse of anti-war protestors, rendered as a part of the fabric of the landscape so languidly navigated by the narrator. I find this approach more interesting than so many political works that attempt to weave together a narrative of American imperialism at the expense of complexity and contradiction; instead we have a more anthropological account of the general sentiments that failed to impact the immediate course of history, but were still an essential part of that time. The sense of despair and powerlessness at the televised invasion of Iraq is rendered in mundane anxieties about queer desires, writer's block, and generic social anxiety, punctured by literal invasions of media noise.

3. Reeves is fascinated by textures and surfaces, which are enhanced by the corporeality of 16mm film. The film becomes an artifact of a time that is understood in digital terms, of media saturation and found footage, of digital surveillance and consumer photography. But rather than scavenging the preferred and prevalent contemporary mediums, Reeves chooses to situate her work in a continuum with physical, grainy substances, alongside those sobering documents of spaces and times that captured the ruin of post-war Italy, the underground subcultures of seventies New York, or the fervent night-lives of Shinjuku. This makes The Time We Killed grounded in the moments it was filmed and assembled but also distant and unrelatable to most works of the period.

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