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It seems that they all went swimmin’

Anthony Elms, Artist and Writer; Editor of WhiteWalls; Assistant Director of Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago; Alumnus of the University of Chicago


On my first visit, intent on watching The Rape of the Sabine Women, a chanting ghostly voice dislocates my focus. “Them a woman was sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) directed by Stanley Donen. The musical film, set in the mid-nineteenth century American West, tells the story of a man who finds love, marries, argues with his wife, and must repair his marriage, all while he directs his six brothers in how to get themselves brides. The film is based on Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story The Sobbin’ Women, which is, of course, a crude adaptation of the Sabine Women myth. “Them a woman was sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’.” I swear it was there, bubbling forth from Jonathan Bepler’s score.

I am at the beginning, and still a quiet, off-kilter sense of entering after production is underway, my being maneuvered into a predetermined position. People go about their work and preparations, readying for the task of making a film. A camera moves into place. With the tools of manufacture visible, is this to be taken as real work? Watching Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007) recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963).

Some possible explanations—the shared aesthetic concentrations: social pretensions, suave displacement, misogyny and swarthiness, representations of labor, improvisation, stewing women, and graceful tracking shots. Or possibly the similar images: the sharp look of money in hairdos, suits, and dresses; thoroughly modern homes dramatically situated on Mediterranean islands; shots that linger at the point of blurring the difference between fashioned pose and contemplation; intercut scenes reading simultaneously as flashback and premonition; and strangely enough, a woman in red dancing near a crowd but seemingly alone—in The Rape of the Sabine Women from drunkenness, in Contempt from awkwardness. I recall these few examples after multiple viewings, trying to verify my gut reaction. None explain why in a matter of seconds—a minute at most—my mind wandered from The Rape of the Sabine Women to Contempt. For that, a simple answer: a camera facing the screen and readying for the shot. That is how both stories open. In The Rape of the Sabine Women the camera is capturing itself in reflection, in Contempt the camera is a prop in a fiction being captured/created. This distinction speaks volumes, in what language, I can’t yet say.

As the camera lowers to point toward the viewer, Godard speaks in voiceover: “‘The cinema’ said André Bazin, ‘substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.’”

Eve Sussman & The Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women started as a lush choreography of Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), and became distracted by the myth of the Sabines, cultural imperialism, international style, and the utopian potential of sexual politics in the sixties along its way. The tale of the Sabine begins when the men of Rome realize that without women their civilization is doomed; they arrange a sporting event with the Sabines wherein they kidnap the Sabine women. When the Sabine men gather to battle the Romans and return the women to their lands, the women, who value their new husbands, intervene to halt the attack. David’s painting depicts the climax of the myth, when Romulus’s wife Hersilia, daughter of Titus Tatius, stands between her husband and her father as they are poised to fight. In Sussman’s video little of the painting and myth remain except for the barest of details and most general of structure. There is no dialogue and no characters in the traditional sense. We watch a number of individuals, including Sussman, who at times read as allegorical figures, social archetypes, emotional or psychological tropes, or characters in a fictional story.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt started as a big-budget interpretation of Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (1954), and became distracted by the process of filmmaking, autobiography, economic imperialism, international style, and sexual politics along its way. Moravia’s novel (now translated in English as Contempt, but originally translated as A Ghost at Noon) tells the story of a writer who defers his writing career to make money as a hack screenwriter. While working for a German director on a version of Homer’s Odyssey, his marriage progressively unravels. In Godard’s film, little of the novel remains except for the barest of details and most general of structure. The language of the film is polyglot, with English, French, German, and Italian featured prominently. The film is famous for the casting of Brigitte Bardot, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance, and Michel Piccoli, who each oscillate between recognizable movie icons (Lang plays himself) and characters playing in the fiction of the film narrative. Godard himself plays the role of Lang’s assistant.

“Re-make/Re-model,” the first song on the first Roxy Music LP (1972), Bryan Ferry’s opening salvo:
I tried but I could not find a way
Looking back all I did was look away
Next time is the best time we all know
But if there is no next time, where to go?

Sussman and The Rufus Corporation approach the Sabine story with drift and temporal displacement, which means that the markers by which we can recognize the myth bubble to the surface unexpectedly, setting serenity and nervousness in constant tension. Women disappear from a contemporary meat market without fuss. We follow the caress of a hand from a companion to a glass, the gauzy moment of doubt and the weary look in the eye that then tracks up to the companion. A glimmer of recognition, this Roman suitor suspects his wife longs for elsewhere. In the work, stories begin but already within other stories underway, with newer stories poised to begin: a structure that guarantees the translations between time and media from source to version will make any interference generative. On two occasions in Contempt Godard shows us the completed footage of the filmed Odyssey, scenes include direct captures of ancient Greek sculptures outdoors, a cheeky close-up death by bow and arrow, awkward swimming nudes and a flailing Ulysses around the coast of Capri. On other occasions we visit the film shoot underway, a short man in a cheap costume hams his way through cartoonish heroic poses. The re-creation is pathetic. There is no confusing these scenes for a real Fritz Lang production; they are didactic and staged even for Godard’s self-aware style, with a flat presentation that reads as adherence to political over-literalization or dead quotation of past styles. Is it possible that where dreaminess is for Sussman, ideology is for Godard?

Both the weight of the warm Mediterranean afternoon and the wait of a warm Mediterranean afternoon unfold during Act IV of The Rape of the Sabine Women and hang over every scene from beginning to end of Contempt. Modern conveniences offer the decadence of time to kill and remarkable places to experience. An ultra-modern home breathtakingly located on the island of Hydra, or the iconic Casa Malaparte on Capri. More important, however, are other locations marked by time: the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and its rich trove of antiquities. The famed Cinecittà movie studios, outside Rome, site of Neorealist filmmaking, built under the guidance of the Italian Fascists. And Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, an important lifeline for West Berlin during the Cold War.

Godard once famously declared, “A tracking shot is a moral act.” Godard did not qualify if the morality of the tracking shot was positive or negative. Note that tracking shots cross all physical space in a scene, they do not set up a subjective point-of-view. They capture unedited space and time as they glide, cross all characters, do not take sides. Both The Rape of the Sabine Women and Contempt feature distinctive uses of tracking camera views.

The relations between Romans and Sabines can only be reasonable if the women are considered property. The women are taken from fathers and placed with men who make them wives. The women then intervene to prevent either side from claiming a right to the women’s allegiance. This is not a case of leaving one for the other, but a refusal to become a bargaining chip or disputed property. In the lush home on the island of Hydra, Sussman’s suave Roman men and Sabine women party into the night, longing for resolution, equilibrium. In Contempt, the story, from very early on, sets in motion a series of events that are expected to lead the characters into a love triangle. Sideways glances, a loaded gun, missed connections and conversations strive to cast Bardot’s Camille as stuck with her laconic and vague husband Paul (Piccoli) and tempted by the decisive clarity and prosperity of the American producer, Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch. Camille never shows any allegiance or tenderness toward Prokosch, she simply refuses to accept the behavior of her husband, and his manner of taking her for granted; Paul never belies any jealousy toward Prokosch, he saves his insults for money and his own failings. The one kiss Camille and Prokosch share registers as a bargaining chip, there is no passion, the kiss is Camille’s desperate attempt to get Paul to recognize her relation in and feelings toward the world of his business decisions. For both stories, messages distort amidst the background interference, be it competing languages or obscuring environmental sounds. Modern fights against misunderstanding between sexes, cultures, and countries. A moment, a couple on a couch, relaxed and stylish, soon a younger man joins them, the woman welcomes him, her companion not so much. A prior moment on a different island, a couple are unable to communicate clearly, a monied man of power intrudes into their well-being, neither welcomes his presence and still he becomes a focal point of both. Are we looking for a resolve? Are we looking for a peace? Are we looking for a disquiet? These are scenes of love triangles that refuse to function as love triangles. What is dressed up here in beautifully pattered dresses and sexy slim-fit suits is the problem of fidelity and how to keep to it.

Reflecting the creak, crack, and tussle of entrenched globalism, Sussman’s video forgoes discernable dialogue for swells of ambient tone, disturbances, enveloping swells, and the static of broadcast interference that bury any spoken dialogue we catch in the moving lips of the characters. Reflecting the grab, push and separation of the burgeoning international entertainment business, Godard’s film features a dynamic polyglot dialogue that demands a translator in nearly every scene featuring more than the central couple Paul and Camille. The abduction of the Sabine and the adventure of the Odyssey are recast in the travel and information flow of multinationals. Without a stable sound world to provide bearings, we need to interpret this complex internationalist marketplace through the gestures: tender hands embracing, fidgeting, smoking, lackadaisically tilting a cocktail, crisply reading the newspaper, shuffling feet, a throw of the shoulder, a curl of the lip, clearing the throat, tandem watch-winding, the stare of large bug-eyed shades refusing to return eye contact. Triangulated in this manner, without intervention, any relation is up for grabs and endlessly under negotiation. The distinct sound of The Rape of the Sabine Women forgoes narrative exposition in favor of building an immersive and distinct spatial place for quotation, allusion, and reinscription. The women lounge around the pool to the faint sounds of cool jazz, laughter, and glasses—is this the sound of an ennui-driven desire for a different tomorrow, yesterday, wafting on the breeze? The premonition of what is certainly a nasty collective hangover? The settings and clothes quote ‘60s continental cinema (such as Contempt), the direction of the scene is reminiscent of independent filmmaking of the ‘90s. Billowing smoke but no blast, details flash by that point back to Fluxus happenings, David’s painting, and the Sabine myth. Quotation marks every second of The Rape of the Sabine Women. Stuart Bailey, from his essay “Dear X” printed in Dot Dot Dot Issue 8 (2004):
Why do we spend so much time quoting other people? Not just us, not just here, but the arts in general right now. References are everywhere, and it’s not a criticism. Personally, I just can’t help the feeling that somebody somewhere else, at some other point in time, has said it more accurately, with more inspiration, and that our job is to tune into these moments like long wave radio.

The many individuals in The Rape of the Sabine Women using audio recording and broadcasting equipment, electronics, mixers, and boom microphones, or alternately wearing headphones to find their way directly embody that last sentence of Bailey’s.

Return to Contempt, during the drawn out apartment fight that anchors the film Camille exhorts Paul, “Why not look for ideas in your head, instead of stealing them?” This nasty spiteful comment might have been barbed with possibility in 1963, even if Godard did paint Louis Lumière’s famous dictum “cinema is an invention without a future” beneath the projection screen in the room where Fritz Lang and Jack Palance spar over the quality of the daily rushes of the fictional Odyssey. From the perspective of 2008, Camille’s question rings naive at best. The problem isn’t other voices, the problem is Paul’s inability to imagine a future. If Sussman’s The Rape of the Sabine Women provides no voiceover and no dialogue and no grounding, no problem. “Why not look for ideas in your head, instead of stealing them?” You can’t steal references that are always already there.

Let’s back up and return to the video camera at the beginning of The Rape of the Sabine Women. Actors and assistants apply makeup, adjust wardrobe, and check levels on equipment. People bustle in a space too small for the number of participants. The video camera begins on its side, the action we see is sideways, before moving into the upright position, correcting the orientation of the scene, signaling the beginning of actual work. What that camera captures is the working set of creation, personal politics, economics, myth and history gearing up for production. In other words, visually imaging the world. At least that is what I thought until the same shot appears a second time in Sussman’s video. When the bustle of the backstage and that camera being readied reappears I try to focus on The Rape of the Sabine Women, or at least the distraction of comparisons between Contempt and The Rape of the Sabine Women. Seeing the footage again, the ambient production clatter in Jonathan Bepler’s lush soundfield refuses to ground me. Now a memory of a voiceover rushes forth. This time the voice is Alexandra Stewart’s and is from the great essay film Sans Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker:

“I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape? How has mankind managed to remember? I know, it wrote the Bible. The New Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.”

Further on: credits finish, a camera has come to rest on its side on a sandy beach, a wolf takes note and comes closer to lick the lens: cut to black. “Them a woman was sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’.” A Cinemascope vision of Ulysses’ first triumphant return view of Ithaca following the fall of Troy, pan to the gorgeous, calm Mediterranean sea, one final production demand: “Silenzio!”

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