The Austin Chronicle

Welcome to the Clown Show

By Andy Campbell, March 12, 2012, 4:18pm, Qmmunity

My socks were soaked through on the opening night of the SXSW Film Festival as I stood in line to see Cabin In the Woods premiere at the Paramount Theater.
But I left all of that to see Ryan Trecartin's film, Sibling Topics (section a) projected on a jury-rigged screen at Cheer Up Charlie's. Here's why this screening was the best opening night SXSW film.

For those unfamiliar with Trecartin's videos, which are far better known in contemporary art communities, they first appear to be overly-wrought RISD-tweaker colored vomit, completely lacking in a narrative structure or plot, and cast with the same group of gender-bending ruffians. To describe a Trecartin film is to succumb to the same language-virus that infects every part of the films themselves. That's precisely why Trecartin's films are so disarming: Sit with any one of them long enough, and the aesthetic reflects and re-formats the over-saturation of press-button media and hype-machines that, in fact, make artists like Trecartin.

Are you rightfully skeptical of the notion that everything worth saying can be said in a 140 characters or less? Trecartin will make you a believer. In his hands, tangent is an embodied (and a very queer) reality... his characters carry phones at all times, speak directly into camera or right past one another in short staccato chipmunk-tones. Narrative is not so much tossed aside, as throttled and transformed. Cheezeball effects used en masse from readily available film-editing software mask troubled relationships between characters and reveal an audience's threshold for willful amateurism.

But Trecartin is not some boy genius whose aesthetic was formed in a vacuum. Like many innovators in their fields, Trecartin builds on the quicksand of predecessors whose places aren't yet set (and perhaps will never be) in any kind of mainstream historical survey. Take, for example, Trecartin's propensity for working with a closely established group of actor-collaborators: George and Mike Kuchar had their own array of such characters just as John Waters had his Dreamland Players. The actors in Trecartin's films often have prolific art careers all their own, and in a couple dozen years will be the subjects of dissertations no doubt.

Projected inside Cheer Up Charlie's tiny indoor bar Sibling Topics (section a) was gloriously informal. The screen, some piece of paper or bedsheet taped to the wall, was about three quarters too small to contain the edges of the projection. Light spilled over neat white borders onto the variegated texture of cinderblock, broken by a hanging speaker or a short hallway only to then continue onto a part of the women's restroom door. Had it been any other film this set up would have been distracting – a jank annoyance at best. However, on that wall, in that bar, on that first night of the SXSW behemoth, there couldn't have been a more perfect union of artist and audience.

It reminds me of a stanza from a Chelsey Minnis poem entitled "Clown" (and I'm not usually one to quote poetry so something must be especially difficult to say/intimate here):

People don't understand how you turn into a clown. You turn into a clown because you feel more and more like putting on a clown suit. When you're around people you sense a kindliness. It makes you so nervous you can't stay calm. Which is why it feels perfectly normal to wear orange pants.

Trecartin's films are a love letter, kindly and horrific, to a continuing history of experimental cinema, the kind of cinema that not even SXSW dares to program – to films that are always projected on non-regulation walls and attended by small, devout groups of viewers.

In such a place, orange pants are perfectly normal.

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