The Conversation: Stephanie Barber’s DAREDEVILS


By Max Goldberg

“The only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth”—Frank O’Hara

Perhaps the only rule of Stephanie Barber’s otherwise unruly art is that words not be taken for granted. “There’s a certain faith that people put in language,” reflects one of the characters in DAREDEVILS, and Barber makes certain that we see the leap involved. Her eclectic efforts include poetry mown into lawns (“Lawn Poems”), an unexpectedly poignant small book composed from YouTube comments appending a Bob Seger video (Night Moves), and more than 30 films conceived with a trickster’s nimble wit and a philosopher’s inquiring mind. In her earlier 16mm shorts, the Baltimore-based Barber pursued her own distinctive linguistics along axes of subtraction and deduction. In shipfilm (1998), for instance, a high-contrast image of a ship pitched on an inky sea holds the screen while a tragedy in three lines prints along the bottom: “they set sail on the tenth of November,” “it rained and they were cold,” and “they had overestimated their abilities.”

Critic Ed Halter perceptively linked this minimalist bearing to Tom Gunning’s idea of “submerged narratives”—a notion Barber evidently took to heart in razor’s edge (2010), a delightfully cryptic collaboration with Xavier Leplae based on their shared memory of the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name. A kind of situationist literary adaptation doubling as a valentine to Baltimore’s wild urban spaces, the largely wordless razor’s edge was an exception to a talkative turn in Barber’s filmmaking. More particularly, several of the shorts collected on These Here Separated to See How They Standing Alone—a paired DVD and book underscoring filmmaking and writing as correlated activities—stake out her special interest in the dialogue form. Barber handles this mainstay of the philosophical tradition with her usual good humour: the tête-à-tête in dogs (2000) is staged between two dog puppets, a manifestly primitive technique rubbing against the serious soul-searching being done. One pup is an artist, the other a freelance thrill-seeker. “Right now I’m interested in working with what might be considered ‘wrong choices,’” says Spike the artist. “Making the viewer feel that uncomfortable feeling they feel when an artist has made the wrong choice. I don’t know, something too silly or obvious or sentimental”—or, you know, staging a serious discussion about life and art between two dummies.

In DAREDEVILS, a feature-length work in HD, Barber embeds a similarly probing dialogue within a resonant narrative container. An allegory of the creative process in three acts, the film measures the vast psychological distance separating inspiration and expression in the person of a young woman assigned to interview a well-established artist. Their dialogue takes up nearly an hour of the film’s 90 minutes, though the long scene is periodically (and enigmatically) interspersed with shots of a Musician (Adam Robinson) recording rhythms in the woods. We begin in this green world, our listening ears finely tuned by the voice of poet Susan Howe in the role of Chorus. By way of invocation, she considers the monarch butterfly’s migration pattern:

The grandfather crosses Canada; the father, the United States; the son, Mexico. It is barely a risk—just a journey—or a folding of risk and taker in concert. 

This advance metaphor for the film’s structure (in three acts) and content (“folding of risk and taker”) ferries us over to the space of the dialogue: a medium shot of a café table in front of three windows, the outside world a haze of light. Howe’s voiceover continues as the young woman enters the left of the frame and places her coffee, tape recorder, notebook, and pen on the table:

I can no more assist you than I can assist in my own expectations, and who am I? Oh yes, right. I will be you watching. I am you.

With this intimate “you” still buzzing in the air, the young woman’s interlocutor enters the frame. They introduce themselves, but it’s the only time we hear names; in the credits they are simply the Writer (KimSu Theiler) and the Artist (Flora Coker). The Writer thanks the Artist for agreeing to be interviewed, and the Artist apologizes for her limited time. Their subsequent dialogue adheres to the same basic three-shot setup of dogs (a frontal composition alternated with two over-the-shoulders), but this hour-long exchange is significantly complicated by the emotional presence of human performers and the social parameters of the interview—a structured encounter which, like the legal deposition or spiritual confession, provides a set form for disclosure.

Over the course of their interview, the Writer asks the Artist about several imaginary pieces, all of them pitched towards intimate interaction: an installation of holographic photographs conceived as a kind of film in which the “edits” depend upon the viewer’s movements; a magnetically charged hotel room; a “Smellodium” that replaces musical notes with aromatic ones; and an evanescent series of “Sky Poems” echoing Barber’s own “Lawn Poems” (and corresponding essay, “FOR A LAWN POEM”). One could glean a lovely essay on aesthetics from the reflections scattered throughout the Artist’s speaking part: “It’s the simplicity that brings the conceptual content to the fore”; “Scale, as a component of a piece, cannot be overlooked as a means by which a thing is expressed”; “How odd that the earth might help us remember when it is so gracefully about forgetting.” She is perfectly willing to sacrifice the natural flow of conversation to find the right word, knowing, as she clearly does, that she is speaking as much to the tape recorder as to the person.

If the Artist seems an ideal embodiment of Barber’s aesthetic preoccupations and strategies, we would do well to remember that the framing of dogs makes it obvious that both “characters” are being handled by a single puppeteer. The Writer’s slightly overeager questioning style suggests a barely concealed desire to be understood as a sensitive interpreter of the Artist’s work. Among the many virtues of DAREDEVILS is the way it conveys the out-of-body experience of interviewing an admired artist. Having recognized something of yourself in their art, you find yourself longing to be recognized in turn, hazarding oddball interpretations and unlikely reference points for the artist to know you have skin in the game.

The Writer is encouraged in these endeavours by the Artist’s lively interest in the nature of the viewer’s experience and her privileging of passionate interpretation (“The work really does bloom under that faith”). Here we might pause on the dizzyingly recursive quality of a dialogue that speculates on the nature of an ideal viewer as we watch. One experiences a similar frisson between the illusion of “thinking out loud” and the actuality of a carefully shaped film from My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Richard Linklater’s conversation pieces (especially Waking Life), but Barber does more to key a dual awareness of the dialogue as drama and analysis. (The idea of a director’s commentary track is hilarious.) As we begin to grasp the way the film puts its characters’ aesthetic propositions into play, the dialogue scene’s apparent transparency begins to seem more like a hall of mirrors.

The delicacy of the DAREDEVILS interview as compared to the dialogues in dogs and the visit and the play (2008) resides in Barber maintaining a steady drive of emotional realism even as she manipulates her characters as meta-fictive ciphers. Thus, we intuitively grasp the Writer’s inward turn as the Artist reflects that “[Rejection] is really just too painful…I can take [it] in most areas of my life, but when my art began to be rejected that felt really different.” Later on, the young woman allows that the talk of reception “touched a nerve.” Success allows the Artist to be moved by her own former naïveté in thinking that hard work and ardour would be rewarded by an “art God in the sky,” but the struggling Writer experiences such magical thinking as helplessness. When the Artist lets on that she only agreed to do the interview after reading the Writer’s stories, however, the acknowledgment works like a charm. Suddenly the Writer is speaking with abandon, riffing on magic and mirror neurons. She experiences the newfound parity as a confirmation of her very existence:

I get the oddest feeling when I’m having a good conversation with someone. Like, I mean, talking makes me feel actual. I feel…terrific! I’m human. I’m talking, she understands and is responding. Eureka, there are other human beings! 

Martin Buber put it like this: “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You”—a figure eight of a sentence with intimations of both affirmation and abjection. For if the epiphany of one’s self in the face of another is thrilling, it’s also perilous: what’s left after the heightened moment has passed, as it must? The Artist looks at her watch; she has not forgotten herself. She gathers her things in a hurry, explaining that she’s late for another appointment. Obviously flummoxed, the Writer reverts back to the now diminished formality of her role as the interviewer as the Artist exits the frame. The minute of screen time that follows is essential to establishing the Writer’s reality. We attend to the silence that settles around the table as she writes a few lines in her notebook, alone again. Before turning the page to the second act, Barber cuts to the same mysterious Musician. He’s like the remainder of a complex equation, occupying a world beyond language, but one nonetheless linked to the dialogue by the presence of the tape recorder.

The film’s second act unfolds as a stationary single take centred on the Writer running on a treadmill, the number 13 hanging over her head like a verdict. In the background, behind a pane of glass, a man and woman play racquetball, almost as if this scene were haunted by the previous pas de deux. A different woman speaks on the soundtrack—the Daredevil (Jenny Graf) of the title. She dictates a euphonious string of daredevil types, the “deep-sea divers, race-car drivers, parachuters, water skiers, knife throwers, cliff divers, base jumpers, [and] toreadors…” who put themselves in harm’s way as a matter of course. Her musings on the life of a professional daredevil are fascinating, and yet the deadpan, disembodied delivery makes her narration difficult to follow (an effect Barber previously experimented with in the inversion, transcription, even track and attractor [2008]). Similarly, even as the Writer faces the camera head-on, it’s next to impossible to track her expression as she quickens her pace. She begins to sob, her cries drowned out by the voiceover, the music track, and the squeaking sneakers. While this very long take seems to be coming apart at the seams, though, the metaphorical resonances between the Artist and Daredevil’s commentaries suggests some kind of creative transposition taking place (Buber: “The actualization of the work involves a loss of actuality”). If the surface brilliance of the dialogue scene masks the underlying emotional turmoil of the exchange, perhaps the opposite is true of this more astringent second act.

The final scene opens on a note of becalmed perplexity: inside an empty living room, the sound of a man singing the same phrase over and over. After the Writer enters the shot, still wearing the same clothes as in the interview, the camera recedes into the space to reveal the Musician in his home studio. The camera follows the Writer into the kitchen, its graceful movement contrasting the shooting style of the other two scenes, until we’re locked on the window view of the backyard. Here the Musician’s completed recording clicks into place, his vocal melodies weaving between the layered rhythms gathered in the field and setting the stage for the Writer to walk out into the night and transform before our eyes into the Dancer.

The song was being written all along. While the exact nature of the relationship of the Writer and Musician remains unspecified, it does seem clear by the end that the intercutting of the dialogue was establishing a link between the two—a secret source of strength gone missing in the second act. Perhaps the Musician can even be understood as the Writer’s subconscious, biding his time and doing the intuitive work while the ego is marshalled for conversation. She finds her way, though how she got there remains necessarily mysterious (we’re as blind to these things as the monarchs passing the baton on their southerly migration). After the closing credits, the Chorus returns for a final benediction:

It is no fun when you are a child in the summer nights, and you tag your sister, and she does not run. She does not swell right before you tag her with the frenzied fear the game suggests possible. You say over and over again, “You’re it.” YOU’RE IT. 

I can’t decide whether this is meant as an invitation or an admonishment, but it’s been clanging around my head for months along with Wikipedia’s definition of risk as the “intentional interaction with uncertainty”—Barber’s art in a nutshell. DAREDEVILS is her most elegant articulation yet of a self-conscious style alive to ideas and emotions, one through the other. As ever, the utter simplicity of presentations is all the more beguiling for the enormity of the endgame.