Relegated off-site from the Giardini and Arsenale HQ at the Venice Biennale, nearly alone in the Campo Santa Margherita, sat Backstory, Mark Lewis’ companion to his Cold Morning installation. Its physical separation is fitting: in its structure, Backstory operates dialectically, as informational documentary on Hollywood studio history, and as a piece of conceptual art. For 40-odd minutes Lewis records endless talk in front of constantly changing backgrounds, a mode of operation that, like two of the films in his installation, functions on two planes: foreground and background, presenting situations of seamless spatial disassociation. But in Backstory, there’s a more vivid breaking-down of these walls—taking delight and praising artifice—and there’s also substance.
Far be it from most people to notice: at the Biennale, the art world balked at having to sit through half an hour of Steve McQueen; far better to glance at a video and move on than engage it. Projected in an actual theatre (as opposed to the outhouse that is the Canada Pavilion), Backstory requires time, as Lewis has filmed three generations of the Hansard family, professional craftsmen whose history in the business traces back to the earliest days of rear projection, and whose livelihood has become defunct with technological advances, and the coinciding evolution in what constitutes reality in a Hollywood film, with the evaporation of a viewer’s willingness to accept artificiality as part of cinematic reality. (Is it more affordable to use green-screens than rear projection? Doubtful.) The Hansards—often father and son—act in a no-nonsense manner before rear-projections, many shot specifically for the piece, others “slides” used on “shows” they worked on. And they talk, and talk, and talk, taking the common reason for rear projection—to provide an economically affordable background for a dialogue scene—to its extreme.
Along with detailing how rear projection works, their stories range from anecdotes about celebrity encounters to stories that have nothing to do with rear projections at all. There’s something in here that’s stereotypical to the bit player on the grander Hollywood stage: the Hansards are practiced storytellers, pieces of a larger puzzle whose secondary function is the perpetuation of myth, whose place in the system is more than merely technical. But how they speak and the way Lewis films them presents the Hansards as having waited three long generations to be able to recount their history. (The Hansards operated the rear projection for Backstory, and it might be their last job; the jolly son is now a studio projectionist on the Sony lot.)
According to Lewis, “the documentary shows how illusion and reality are interchangeable, a process that is both beautiful and quintessentially modern.” The Hansards’ mantra, “You’re only as good as your backgrounds,” reverses our notion of what constitutes meaning in a Hollywood film, and evokes Thom Andersen’s philosophy from Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). Yet Lewis’ endearing documentary is more concerned with the functioning of craftsmen in the studio system; rather than highlighting the backgrounds, he makes stars of the people in front of them, and the Hansards’ delight with their place is palpable. Though a bit uncomfortable, their interactions remain leisurely, and, well, nice: witness the father and son chomping down hot dogs on a stick in front of a rear-projected stand. The point becomes clear that this type of family business, if not an ideal of the American family itself, is likewise becoming a thing of the past, and whatever your opinion, something’s been lost. But as the saying goes, that’s entertainment.