TIFF 2023 | We Don’t Talk Like We Used To (Joshua Gen Solondz, US) — Wavelengths

By Michael Sicinski.

Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023)

A few years ago, I interviewed the artmaking team of Dani and Sheilah ReStack, a married couple with children who described their work as based on the concept of “feral domesticity.” It’s a conceptual oxymoron, since the two words suggest opposite sensibilities with respect to the home space. Living in a home together implies domestication, but “feral domesticity” dismantles the civilizing and confining aspects of home life, suggesting a practice that allows wildness and unpredictability inside without attempting to tame it or rob it of its disruptive power. One could compare this with Marilynne Robinson’s classic novel Housekeeping, in the sense that eventually walls no longer demarcate an ideological practice or even a boundary between inside and outside.

I thought about this while rewatching the most recent films of Joshua Gen Solondz, because many of his films take place within what appears to be a domestic space: there are couches, chairs, shelves with plants and knickknacks, all signifying an arena for daily living. Of course, these could be stage sets, like the domestic vaporwave environments in Shana Moulton’s Whispering Pines series (2002–2018). But Solondz makes no attempt to draw attention to artifice, and so we can assume for the purposes of discussion that the films are staged in actual home environments. As one watches the films in question—in particular Luna e Santur (2016), (tourism studies) (2019), and his newest film We Don’t Talk Like We Used To—one of the impressions one draws is that Solondz is also turning the quotidian home space into something else. We might call it “savage domesticity.”

Drawing a proper distinction between the feral and the savage would be a job for anthropologists, and perhaps zookeepers. But as I am employing the terms here, let’s say that the feral exists on the very edge of domesticity, circles it, and may eventually be taken inside. The savage, of course, is a term with a fraught connection to conquest and colonialism, and I use the word advisedly. Savage, in the case of Solondz’s work, is violent, overwhelming, and insatiable. Where the feral introduces an unstable term into the domestic situation, the savage threatens to destroy it absolutely. However, because domesticity always exerts a civilizing force, Solondz’s savage behaviour is purposeful and, in many cases, ritualized.

In Luna e Santur, Solondz introduces a hypnotic flicker of alternating images. At the start of the film, four kinds of material alternate back and forth, like a three-dimensional thaumatrope. But as the film proceeds, the strands of images are multiplied beyond this. Two of the three sequences feature a pair of performers covered in white sheets with eyeholes, the classic Halloween costume signifying “ghost.” In one set, the ghosts are embracing and grappling; in the other, they appear to be wrestling on a bed. Taken together, these tranches of distended, partly de-animated images suggest some form of amorousness or sexuality, but one that is characterized by force and energy. However, Solondz’s manipulation of the footage precludes any firm determination, because the rapid alternation of images itself induces agitation in the scene. 

The third strand of visual information consists of mostly clear film leader with dust particles, brushstrokes, and scratches. The lilac white of the film image makes this material pop, almost like the raw light of the projector lamp disrupting the already compromised coherence of the performance scenes. And, in between all this, there are short passages of black. Later in the film, the ghost couple are soon rolling on the floor in the 69 position, then embracing on the bed, supine, and then upright. The walls and floor are partially covered by white sheets as well. (The film is mostly silent, aside from the rhythmic thumps of low-frequency sound waves and an unexpected ending theme.) By the film’s end, Solondz has increased the presence of the abstract frames, introducing other colours and bits of sprocket hole. 

Although this is not a narrative film, one can observe a progression that is worth considering. A performance that suggests both violence and intimacy is at first disrupted by “pure film” gestures, and nearly gives way to them entirely by the end. Solondz tempts us with bodies and actions, but prevents any clear understanding of who or what we are seeing. Post-Freudian film theory would suggest that this lure of sexuality and its persistent thwarting enacts its own kind of “violence,” and the use of flicker in experimental cinema—throbbing light that penetrates closed eyelids and can adversely affect the brain waves of some viewers—has itself been identified at times as a form of direct cinematic violence.

Luna e Santur presents a ritualized domestic scene as the site of controlled forms of physical pressure. Because it is a staged performance, we know that the activities between the ghosts are consensual, and the rhythmic editing of the film deploys the visual shocks of the flicker with mathematical precision. Solondz offers the home space as a kind of laboratory for the exertion and reception of bodily force. He takes this in a very different direction in (tourism studies), a film that is in part a compilation of footage Solondz shot while travelling. Beginning with exposed film with pink and blue striations, the film soon presents another performance ritual: two figures in mylar suits and shiny, conical hats are seen in a dark room, moving alongside one another. This material, the abstract and the performative, begins alternating in a flicker pattern. 

Upon introducing footage shot on a mostly empty racetrack, Solondz pairs the new material with a high-pitched electronic zapping sound, a pulse that will continue throughout the film’s seven-and-a-half minutes. Shortly thereafter, he starts to flip the image on the vertical axis, generating a spinning motion in the viewer’s eye, scenes being instantly replaced by their inverse. Making matters more confusing, (tourism studies) adds black-and-white, Op Art mandalas into the image system, a throbbing element that intensifies the already potent optical impact of the flicker. 

Solondz increases the presence of the optical-illusion images when he shifts to another scene. In this case, we are seeing a guarded checkpoint on the Golan Heights, with warning signs in Hebrew and Arabic. The high-pitched tone shifts to a guttural sound-head thump, and as the film progresses, Solondz shifts among multiple strands of imagery: different locations, abstract frames, and the golden cone-heads, all rapidly flipping back and forth. By the end of the film, the movement and the noise are less intense, more glitchy, and we see several members of Solondz’s family.

To consider (tourism studies) in relation to savage domesticity, we need to understand that tourism is distinct from travel, exploration, and certainly from migration. Tourism is a gaze that domesticates the outside world, rendering it understandable and consumable. While (tourism studies) prevents this acquisitive gaze through its formalism, it also exemplifies an algorithmic system wherein distinct locations (Tokyo, Brussels, Amsterdam, Baghdad, and others), handcrafted abstraction, and the performative rituals that make the domestic space strange, are all treated equally. The rituals are amplified by Solondz’s discontinuous presentation and at the same time are subsumed within a rational framework—they are “tamed” rhythmically and at the same time overpower the conscious mind, unleashed as pure propulsion.

If we look across Solondz’s work over the past decade and a half, we can observe certain elements of this psychotronic savagery coming into play. This is an artist whose has always been concerned with somatic effects, but the way that Solondz engages the body of the viewer has shifted over time. An early work like Keratin Reserve (2007) provides a literal inscription of the body, or at least its waste matter: Solondz affixed finger and toenail clippings to clear leader and printed the result, in a sense remaking Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) as a song of the self. In subsequent years, Solondz’s work seemed to be moving in two distinct but related directions. Optical animations such as Prisoner’s Cinema and Burning Star (both 2012) expand on the direct optical sensation (light, shape, colour, movement) best exemplified by the films of Paul Sharits. Like Sharits’ flickering mandala films, these works by Solondz overpower the eye, their rapid expansions, contractions, and vibrations going to work on the “optical unconscious” while also leaving the viewer very conscious of having been overwhelmed or even assaulted.

During roughly the same period, Solondz was engaging with the history of the male body in performance and video art, particularly as it relates to risk, danger, and the collapse of subjective boundaries. The hybrid work TV (2014) combines Chris Burden’s 30-second commercial with Solondz’s own remake of that ad. (To create the proper television context, he includes old ads for the headache remedy Head-On: “Apply directly to the forehead!”) Both Burden’s original ad and Solondz’s remake depict the 1973 performance Through the Night Softly, in which a naked Burden writhes across broken glass. 

In another 2014 piece, Against Landscape, Solondz obliquely references Burden’s self-obliterating performance practice while calling on other, more disturbing cultural knowledges. The video is shot from the back of a moving vehicle travelling down a gravel road; Solondz, covered almost from head to toe in a leather suit, is being slowly dragged behind the vehicle as he squirms and rearranges himself in order to minimize friction. He loses a shoe, the cord becomes disconnected from his body, and the image keeps trucking down the road until Solondz’s leathery form is out of sight. The title is a pun, of course: Solondz is not opposing landscape so much as he is literally being pulled against it. And while the video is in dialogue with Burden actions such as Fire Roll (1973) and Trans-Fixed (1974), it inevitably calls to mind the 1998 murder-by-dragging of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas. In Against Landscape, Solondz is in control of the entire event, and shows us the representation of consensual, formalized violence as a way of articulating the specific conditions of white supremacist brutality.

Meanwhile, Outsourcing (2012), while not a remake, engages quite directly with the performances of Vito Acconci. His works, such as Rubbings (1970), Pryings (1971), and Open Book (1974), deformed the white male body by eroding its physical integrity as well as manipulating its orifices in order to, in Acconci’s words, force this body to remain “wide open,” accepting any non-self it encounters. In Outsourcing, Solondz takes a homemade microphone on a cord, puts it inside a condom, and proceeds to swallow it as completely as possible, also documenting the sounds of that penetration. The symbolism attached to the relaxing of the gag reflex is rather obvious, but Outsourcing replaces the phallus with technology, producing a kind of internal auto-document that operates at the junction between the sexual, the cinematic, and the medical.

In some of Solondz’s most recent films, however, this interest in the body has shifted once again, with the artist’s own physical manipulation of the filmstrip itself. While this once again shows the impact of Sharits on Solondz’s cinematic thinking, it also reflects his engagement with the work of the late Luther Price. Working on the fringes of the experimental scene, Price experienced a late-career surge of interest in his obsessively hand-worked films, slides, and visual ephemera. Price’s best-known films, such as Sodom (1989), Run (1994), and the Biscotts series (2005-08), were distinguished by the artist’s intensive slicing, gluing, collaging, painting, and overall disassembly of the filmstrip. Creating dense, impasto-laden cinematic objects that at times barely ran through the projector, Price treated the discrete frame as a unit to be violently ruptured. His process could unmake the mechanical production of audio-visual “insides” and “outsides,” as well as eliminating the distinction between cinema and other adjacent arts.

If Sharits aimed to wield optical information as a philosophical weapon, and Burden and Acconci worked to break down the integrity of the white male body, Price could be seen as the logical conclusion of these practices. His films emphasize the vulnerability of their material substrate while at the same time projecting that fragility outward, short-circuiting the viewer’s ability to identify shapes and forms and distinguish deliberate images from accidental artifacts. In so doing, Price laid bare the disturbing fact that all human production, perhaps film especially, begins destroying itself as soon as it is made. Art is tomorrow’s garbage, and our attention can only retard its inevitable decay.

Solondz’s NE Corridor (2022) is an overt homage to Price. Using what seems to be a training film as its basis, it is punctured, perforated, paint-thickened, and pasted together, colour and light affixed to the filmstrip one fragment at a time. The film is a logical extension of Keratin Reserve, though where that film was composed from discarded bits of Solondz’s body, NE Corridor regards the film itself as a body—one that can be compromised, penetrated, and harmed, but in a controlled, “consensual” manner. (The film does, however, include slivers of Solondz’s skin.) Like the performance films, NE Corridor thematizes violence, but drains it of its dangerous spontaneity. Overworking the surface of the filmstrip becomes a ritual all its own, the film a self-consuming totem of that ritual violence.

We Don’t Talk Like We Used To is Solondz’s longest film to date. Close attention to Solondz’s previous work, in particular the shifting emphases he has placed on different aspects of his primary approach, shows that the new film isn’t just a temporal extension, but a conceptual one as well. We Don’t Talk is part travelogue and part diary film, a combination of the artist’s bizarre version of domestic bonhomie and his resistance to reducing the larger world to consumptive tourism. Setting these two elements into dialectical action, Solondz produces an aggressive, throbbing film ritual that alludes to common experiences—travel, physical affection, scenes from daily life—but thwarts the tendency to reduce them to mere spectacle.

The film begins with a dark-grey shot of a desk at a window. Audio and video equipment is laid out across the tabletop; we see a wooded area outside. The film is worn and the light is grainy, suggesting pinhole photography. Gradually, smoke billows up outside the window. The soundtrack contains a faint bell sound and the knocking of a woodpecker. The domestic workspace seals the filmmaker (and the viewer) from uncertain harm, but the inviolability is temporary, if not utterly fictitious. Solondz enters the frame and stares out the window.

Following a couple of quick images—a woman in a balaclava and a US flag unitard; a dog on a couch; a kid with a cat mask putting on glasses in a parking lot—the film’s main visual motifs appear. We catch a glimpse of someone encased in leather strapping an N95 mask over their hidden face, followed by the sight of a woman in pigtails wearing a leather facemask with exaggerated eye- and mouth-holes. We also see photos of the same person, mask and all, posted on the wall behind her. A rather long shot taken from a ferry, a cityscape drifting out of sight, is presented with a scrawled text: “do you participate in money laundering.”

As We Don’t Talk progresses, Solondz shows us a variety of travelling images, footage shot in the outside world, occasionally emblazoned with other cryptic phrases. When we return to the home space, we are given a casually perverse family portrait, the dog joined on the couch by two figures in eyeless black hoods. “We came back to the city, the sun turned black,” the image reads. Following another superimposed bit of writing (“failed in Paris, try Hong Kong”), we see footage from Hong Kong of people congregated around a horse-racing track. The drumming becomes more intense. This is travelogue footage that will soon be replaced with a looping edit of another ritualized performance, one pregnant with external meanings.

Solondz alternates between different moments of a singular action, with a sharp electronic burble heard in every other image. A figure in a black hood is placing the N95 over their face in one half of the edit, and is removing it in the other. In addition to being a potent image, one that creates a kind of circular pumping action onscreen, it also provides a new twist on Solondz’s fixation on the body in space, as an interior that both threatens and is threatened by the outside. The figure is outside, in front of a corrugated building. But COVID-19 was a danger not only to the body itself—it also compromised the notion of private space as a safety zone. In public, we were required to keep our breath to ourselves, turning each public body into a moted castle, a self-contained envelope of viral possibility. After the N95 sequence concludes, we see Solondz wrapping his head in plastic, a dangerous gesture of self-containment that mimics a death that has already occurred.

Throughout much of the rest of We Don’t Talk, Solondz toggles between distorted footage inside the home and material shot while moving out in the world. This concern with the body under duress, and the comprehensive breakdown of domesticity and public life, takes on a more direct valence in this film because, in a sense, the air is quite different in the COVID era. One tried to protect oneself and one’s family by wearing protective gear outside, keeping the body to itself, because one has no idea where the toxicity lay. Are you infecting the outside world, or does it threaten to infect you? 
The eight-note rhythm of Solondz’s loop editing once again provokes agitation for the viewer, suggesting hyperventilation. The face masks (some leather and latex, therefore airtight, others nylon and lace, thus breathable) will affect the performer’s respiration to some extent, but more generally, We Don’t Talk Like We Used To speaks directly to the clash of bodies, whether casual or intimate. Towards the end of the film, we see a black outfit smoldering on the ground, perhaps a visual nod to the late Ana Mendieta, but also a signal that no protection is absolute. The film concludes with a staggering, stuttering shot of two black-masked bodies outside on a rock, being jostled to and fro as they attempt to embrace and kiss. Talk is breath, and Solondz’s title, which may in some way be the personal lament it seems to be, is also a much greater statement. Wearing masks, of course, became a flashpoint for the fanatical right wing, a movement that insists upon the complete autonomy of the self. But Solondz displays exactly what is at stake, philosophically and interpersonally, in the age of COVID. Unfettered intimacy, even if such a thing were ever possible, is entirely off the table. The body in space is potentially a vector for destruction, and only by acknowledging and maybe even embracing this fact can we ever move towards another. By ritualizing danger, as well as our feeble prophelaxes against it, perhaps we can reconceive the social bond. After all, failure to entertain the notion of death is animalistic, feral. Embracing death, performing it, exorcising it—that is the work of the savage.

michael.sicinski@cinema-scope.com Sicinski Michael