By Nathan Kouri
Me! he says, hand on his chest.
Actually, his shirt.
And there, perhaps,
‘‘Myself I Sing’’ / George Oppen
"We can think of textiles as landscapes," filmmaker Jodie Mack tells an Iowa City audience packed full of students, professors, musicians, filmmakers, curious passerby, and children on the night of February 9th. And her new film The Grand Bizarre shows us how.
Over five years, Mack retraced historically significant trade routes to Mexico, China, Poland, Ukraine, Rotterdam, Cádiz, Tangier, India, Indonesia, Israel, Turkey, Greece, England, and France, among other places, to film, research, discuss, and embody The Grand Bizarre, completing it last year. Mack, also a professor at Dartmouth specializing in animation and early cinema, said for this project she couldn’t rely on academic sources to give her the whole truth, particularly in ethnographic studies of fabric creation and trade, so she explored the subjects firsthand. She recounted visits to libraries and markets as well as a wide variety of textile factories, sometimes making friends with textile workers, sometimes banned from filming them, and sometimes leaving, thanks to the polluted air, "blowing black out of [her] nose."
Headroom, a screening series funded by the University of Iowa Libraries and Cinematic Arts department, brought Jodie Mack to Iowa City this past weekend to kick off this semester’s program of essential contemporary avant-garde filmmaking. Mack is one of our most exciting filmmakers and one of our most excited as well—on Saturday night she was full of wonderment, answering audience questions without a moment’s hesitation, enunciating carefully, spinning out concepts for new projects and different versions of The Grand Bizarre on the spot (a version designed to play in clubs to experiment with rhythm and the foreground/background of audience attention?), riffing on ideas with herself as much as with the audience.
The Grand Bizarre—part travelogue, part musical comedy, part essay, part dance—combines and remixes many ideas from Mack's previous work: Flicker films of textile patterns (Harlequin, Persian Pickles [paisley], Posthaste Perennial Pattern [floral], Rad Plaid [alternating horizontal and vertical stripes, speeding up until the two seemingly combine into plaid], Point de Gaze [lace], Undertone Overture [tie dye], and others), mutated musicals (Yard Work Is Hard Work, Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project) and music videos (A Joy, August Song) or both (Curses, a music video where Mack rotoscopes hand-cut marble paper onto the Kelly-Charisse dream ballet from Singin' in the Rain), archives of and tributes to everyday objects usually overlooked as disposable (security envelopes in Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside, dollar-store gift bags in Glistening Thrills, paper-sample books in New Fancy Foils), and psychescientific opulent visual freakouts (Let Your Light Shine, which requires prismatic glasses to create its visual effects, expanding beyond the screen, weaving and crosshatching different layers of lightwaves, or as Mack describes it, "handmade optical polyrhythms and a thousand rainbows explore the grating equation," Ebullition, Undertone Overture, and Glistening Thrills, "a shiny otherworld of holographic reverie" according to her website).
Mack often works, in the tradition of Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren, Oskar Fischinger, and Mary Ellen Bute, in a medium of motion painting and motion collage unique to cinema, but she's more interested in touch and texture, both physical and visual, than those filmmakers. Like Judy Chicago, Xenobia Bailey, and Shelia Hicks before her, she refashions so-called crafts and functional arts into conceptual and visceral formalist marvels: "When is abstract imagery ornamental and when is it utilitarian?" she asked.
The Grand Bizarre, Mack elaborated, is about being lost in material, unable to identify the origin of the patterns used in the movie because of a history of cross-cultural travel and "reflexive appropriation." She collected fabrics and objects to film from each country she visited, bringing them to her next destination, until by the end of the journey, she had amassed an enormous, gorgeous collection, of which the film is a partial archive (similarly, the short that preceded the feature Saturday night, Hoarders Without Borders, documents the unusual mineral collection of collector Mary Johnston). The film alternates between close-ups of these objects, or close-ups of their digital blow-ups, which create a flat, graphic space of abstraction and those same objects animated in real space, documenting Mack's globetrotting on the edges of the frame. Unlike her previous pattern films, the filmmaker observed, where the flicker sequences synthesize variations on a single pattern into a kind of dance, in The Grand Bizarre the strobe between patterns is discontinuous, designed for clash and counterpoint, the distant images fused together because your eyes can't keep up—in one stunning moment, stroboscopic editing turns rumpled cloth into splashing waves and vice versa.
The Grand Bizarre also delves further into the production of the materials Mack is filming—analogue and digital, factorymade and handmade—comparing the process of animation to the process of textile-making and how the labor-intensive technique behind each art is hidden from their consumers ("someone I will never meet made this shirt, or a machine made the shirt and someone sewed the buttons’’). In this way, the movie alternately embodies, critiques, and observes the homogenization of material and audiovisual culture. Over the course of an hour—a measurement which, Mack noted, is another kind of industrial standardization that crosses social and cultural lines—there are many "fake" electronic pop songs soundtracking the film. Mack explained that though she visited more than a dozen different countries across the globe, each with its own unique musical styles and traditions, everywhere she went she heard Drake. After explaining how sub-bass sounds unite an audience physically, linking them to war technology in an aside, she explained how the songs she created for the film reflect this experience: "I moved from the most complex time signature I was comfortable working in, which in one case was 11/8, and moved through compound time signatures into 4/4 [the time signature omnipresent in contemporary Western pop music]." Another song samples the Skype ringtone. Other times she drew patterns from the fabrics directly into the music program and worked from the sounds that created.
"I show her short films in class often," said Mike Gibisser, a fellow filmmaker-professor from the University of Iowa who programs the Headroom series. "Headroom tries to really engage with new perspectives and complex takes on contemporary issues. The Grand Bizarre is very thoughtful and thought-provoking in how it addresses or invokes questions around ethnography and representation, while also engaging with the history of experimental film." Of Jodie Mack he said, "She’s one of the most generous teachers and human beings you’ll ever meet. She was thrilled about getting to meet with students to look at their work as well as the response and the perceptive questions at the screening." He adds, "We sent her home with a seashell lamp from Artifacts."
After the movie, the audience walked out of the theatre, back into the falling snow, some in lively discussion of what they had seen, some in a quiet haze as their eyes adjusted to the strobeless, now desaturated-seeming environment outside, some just staring at the patterns on their shirts.
You can see and hear some of Jodie Mack’s work here and Mike Gibisser's work here. The schedule of Headroom's upcoming events is here, including the films of the late Jonathan Schwartz, listed as one of the "25 Filmmakers for the 21st Century" by Film Comment, and the experimental dance films of Melika Bass, named one of the ‘‘25 New Faces of Independent Film 2018’’ by Filmmaker Magazine.