Outside Noise (Ted Fendt, Germany/South Korea/Austria)

By Lawrence Garcia

In 1984, the American philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto articulated a theory of the end of art. His claim—entirely distinct from declarations of the death of art—was not that art would no longer continue to be produced, but rather that there was no longer any “special way works of art have to be.” Against Clement Greenberg’s influential conception of Modernism, in which the different arts would carry out a gradual purification of their respective essences (e.g., “flatness,” in the case of painting), Danto foresaw the end of all such master narratives, envisioning a “post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes.” There would no longer be any way to assign a priori artistic value to an object on the basis of a particular style or look, no way to elevate (or devalue) a work based solely on whether it is Abstract Expressionist or Surrealist, figurative or non-figurative. In short, there would be nothing that an artist had to do. This “post-historical” era would be “a condition of perfect aesthetic entropy,” but also “a period of quite perfect freedom.” 

One need not fully accept Danto’s arguments to recognize something of the situation he identifies, or to feel the challenges of living within it. Indeed, Outside Noise, American filmmaker Ted Fendt’s third feature, unfolds in more or less the environment Danto describes, one in which aesthetic entropy and artistic freedom commingle in a kind of ambient haze. The film follows a loosely connected trio of young women, each caught in a state of listless, insomniac inaction. After a brief stint in New York, Daniela (Daniela Zahlner) visits her friend Mia (Mia Sellmann) in Berlin before heading back to Vienna to look for a job. A mutual friend, Natascha (Natascha Manthe), has dropped out of her graduate program, while Mia is struggling to finish hers. Later in the film, the three reunite in Vienna, but the change of scenery doesn’t seem to alter the film’s directionless drift. Twice during the film’s 61 minutes, a character expresses a desire to do something “interesting” with their life, and by the end, one feels how easily freedom can become a state of permanent paralysis.

To return to Danto for a moment: the challenge of his thesis is how exactly to conceive of artistic freedom in this so-called “post-historical” era if the traditional criterion of value no longer pertains. For his part, Fendt has stressed his interest in developing a method rather than a style—that is, in allowing practical concerns (budget, collaborators, location) to inform his artistic decisions, rather than the other way around. This is not to say that Fendt is somehow exempt from problems of artistic tradition and influence, or that his films are not identifiably the work of the same person. (He isn’t; they are.) Rather, it is to suggest that, across an oeuvre of five shorts and three features, he has turned the question of style into an explicit problem, or, more precisely, into a problem of explicitness. In these films that appear to “say” as little as possible, where the purpose of any given sound or image is always uncertain, the question of style becomes a matter of distinguishing between signal and noise.

One manifestation of this central ambiguity is that the usual critical procedure of drawing connections to other films and filmmakers is none too revealing when it comes to Fendt’s work. Given the preponderance of casual conversation in Outside Noise, and the fact that co-stars Zahlner and Sellmann are credited as co-writers, one might recall Éric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert (1986), whose lead, Marie Rivière, was credited “pour le texte et l’interprétation.” Likewise, the film’s urban drift and elliptical presentation might bring to mind the female-driven flânerie of Angela Schanelec’s Places in Cities (1998) and Marseille (2004). But while both comparisons are illustrative, the affinities they highlight are localized, limited. More to the point, they are obvious. And if Outside Noise can be defined by any one thing, it’s the way it seems to refuse obviousness and explicitness at every turn, never quite resolving its stylistic markers (naturalistic performances, realistic sound and image) into discernible patterns of expression or meaning.

Whereas the movements of Short Stay (2016) and Classical Period (2018) were clearly delineated by their respective male protagonists, Outside Noise continually diffuses our curiosity across its apparently placid fictional surface. Indeed, much of the pleasure of watching Outside Noise comes from not knowing beforehand which of its elements—whether of plot, performance, or visual texture—will be of significance in the scene to come (not to mention the film as a whole). A sum of borrowed money comes up early on as just another casual detail, but then unexpectedly, tensely re-emerges as a point of tension in a conversation late in the film, and in the end lingers as a kind of unanswered question; an outdoor stroll, which includes talk of the lunar cycle, segues into a sensuous shot of a harvest moon, which exerts an almost totemic force in this film largely composed of its characters’ wanderings. As these examples demonstrate, Fendt’s film does not simply negate narrative in favour of visual texture (or vice versa), but rather keeps the balance of our interest always uncertain, creating the uncanny impression that it is not directing our attention at all. 

Of course, the very act of selecting which sounds and images will constitute a film is to direct a viewer’s attention. This tension emerges most clearly in the characters’ recurring talk of museums, spaces that are nothing if not explicit about ascribing significance to specific objects—about distinguishing between signal and noise. When Natascha and Mia first arrive in Vienna, Daniela suggests they visit the Sisi Museum (a showcase for the everyday paraphernalia of the Empress Elisabeth), which she describes as “a real fetish museum.” At a house party, Fendt—a Philadelphia native who studied German in Vienna—shows up as a Philadelphia native who studied German in Vienna, offering unsolicited advice about the city’s Globe and Esperanto museums. Elsewhere, Natascha tells Daniela about a visit to Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie, where she was unexpectedly brought to tears by a painting of a six-year-old girl. “Feelings are shown so seldom in museums,” Natascha remarks. “I wondered why.”

Alongside the fact that we never actually see a museum interior in Outside Noise, Natascha’s line directly raises the issue of the museum as an institution, asking what belongs inside or outside of it (not to mention who gets to decide). This question has some obvious bearing on Danto’s theory, for it highlights the disjunction between that “post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes” and the practical matters of museum curation. But the salient aspect of Danto’s thesis that is brought out by the museum talk in Outside Noise is that it does not advocate the negation or denial of artistic value, but rather seeks to change our conception of how it is conferred. The implication is that no external authority such as a museum (or a film festival) can ultimately determine one’s response to a work of art—or, indeed, whether or not one regards a given work as “art” at all.

Viewed in this light, Outside Noise becomes a film of both perfect entropy and perfect freedom: it reveals its pleasures to the degree that one ventures to disturb its seemingly unassuming exterior, and actively frustrates attempts to judge it solely by reference to recognizable traditions, styles, or categories. (For example, Fendt’s commitment to shooting exclusively on 16mm raises the notion of “medium-specificity,” which is chiefly associated with experimental artists rather than narrative filmmakers—but if Danto is right, there is no sure basis for judging Fendt’s 16mm films as a priori less “medium-specific” than those of, say, Nathaniel Dorsky.) The challenge it posits to us, then, is to see our encounters with individual artworks as existing not within the context of some institution or establishment and its framework of assumed value, but within the placeless centre of our artistic experience—a museum without walls.

lgarcia@cinema-scope.com Garcia Lawrence