Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 18, 2010 7:04 pm 
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Ben Brock in Shadow

Seeing him at press and industry screenings at the Walter Reade Theater over several years, I've become aware of Ed Lachman and his fine cinematography. Like other fans I was deeply shaken by the premature death of River Phoenix. Shadow, a short film shown at the Whitney, shot by Lachman, evokes River Phoenix and Dark Blood, the unfinished film he and Lachman were working on when the young actor died. Shadow is a beautiful and haunting piece. Below are several descriptions of it.


The following text was written by Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator Chrissie Iles. (From the Whitney's website.)

Artists have long engaged with the mythology of Hollywood, creating a hybrid of art and cinema that has become an important strand of contemporary art. Shadow (2010), a video installation by Slater Bradley in collaboration with Academy Award–nominated cinematographer Ed Lachman, takes as its inspiration the unfinished Hollywood film Dark Blood (1993) for which Lachman was the cinematographer. In the film, River Phoenix plays a disturbed, young, half–Navajo widower who lives like a hermit near a nuclear testing site in the Nevada desert, waiting for the apocalypse and making kachina dolls that he believes have magic powers. Phoenix’s character’s wife died from radiation poisoning from the site. A married couple becomes stranded when their car breaks down in the desert and they are rescued by the widower, who falls in love with the woman. The film progresses to a dramatic ending in which the young man dies, but because of Phoenix’s own untimely death, the final scenes were never filmed.

Based on Lachman’s memories and impressions of filming Dark Blood seventeen years prior, Shadow constructs a prologue that imagines the widower’s life just before he meets the couple. Although it contains references to what takes place in the original film (now the future) and is haunted by Phoenix’s ghostly presence, major elements of the original—the couple, the car breaking down, the attraction of the widower to the woman—do not appear in Bradley and Lachman’s film, and parts of their story—the little girl, the deserted house, the bar—do not appear in the original. The two narratives are woven together by threads of fact and fiction whose boundaries are never made clear. The bar in Shadow was the one frequented by Phoenix while filming the original movie, for example, and the location, near the Capitol Reef in Utah, is the same as in Dark Blood. The photographs found by the widower in the prologue were discovered by chance by Lachman and Bradley in the bar. They were taken in 1993 and show Lachman and Phoenix at work on Dark Blood. In a further twist, Ben Brock, who plays Phoenix as the widower, bears an uncanny resemblance to Slater Bradley. Shadow thus becomes a triple portrait of the actor, the cinematographer, and the artist, transforming a conventional cinematic narrative into a labyrinthine tale that blurs the lines between illusion and reality, past and future.

The following photograph and text are from Andrew Hultkrans of Art Forum, found on the magazine's website.

Slater Bradley and Ed Lachman, October 2010

Inspired by the unfinished 1993 movie Dark Blood (shot by Lachman and directed by George Sluizer), which was the last set River Phoenix left before OD’ing on a heroin-cocaine-Xanax cocktail outside the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, Shadow finds Bradley continuing his obsession with breathing new life into dead stars (Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson). Here, the artist’s “doppelgänger” Ben Brock plays Phoenix playing the half-Navajo widower from Sluizer’s film during the nights and days just before the original film’s script begins. In Dark Blood, a Hollywood jet-set couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) break down in the Utah desert where Phoenix lives alone amid dilapidated houses near a nuclear testing ground. Phoenix mourns his Navajo wife, who died of cancer from latent radiation, and, quickly falling for Davis, keeps the couple trapped on the compound so he can start a new life with her. Needless to say, things end as badly in the film as they did for Phoenix in life.

Shadow, a gorgeously shot, elliptical short, is a Möbius-strip mininarrative that could have been co-written by Samuel Beckett and Cormac McCarthy. The Brock/Phoenix character is shown walking out of the desert night with a lantern and into another lonely day in his ghost town. He kicks around, rants and mumbles to himself, finds an old Playboy in an abandoned house, discovers a little girl with a mutilated doll in a trailer, drives the girl out into the middle of nowhere, and drops her off, giving her a pistol holster containing a music box (“Strangers in the Night”) and saying, “This will protect you.” Later, he’s seen sitting by a campfire at night in another spot in the middle of nowhere, burning a Playboy centerfold (not the one he picked up earlier, interestingly), with a kachina doll at his side. He’s last shown walking into the pitch-black distance with a lantern—the beginning of the sequence that will continue at the start of the film.

After watching this three times, I emerged back into the crowd of overdressed socialites milling about the Hopper show. (Hopper himself must be rolling in his grave; nighthawks at the diner these were not.) I went downtown for the postshow dinner hosted by Team Gallery—also celebrating the opening of “The Estate of Chris Vassell”—at Kenmare (excellent cocktails and canapés) and found myself chatting with Lachman over dessert. Something of a stealth operator for such a distinguished cameraman, Lachman started with Herzog and Wenders and has since quietly amassed an impressive, mostly indie filmography, including standout work for Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman, and the two Todds (Solondz and Haynes).

Quizzed about his favorite black-and-white cinematographers, Lachman gave props to noir master John Alton and Fellini’s genius cameraman Otello Martelli. He tries to use color the way they used black-and-white film, he said, with an eye for aesthetics that transcend realism. (Hence the Technicolor palette of Haynes’s Far from Heaven [2002] and the equally vibrant hues of Shadow, which evoke a digital-video version of John Ford’s The Searchers [1956].) Pressed on the second-class citizenship cinematographers endure in Hollywood, Lachman was gracious. He did allow that there’s only so much a great cameraman can do for a lousy director. Mediocre directors often hire top talent to cover for their failings, but the medium doesn’t work that way, Lachman said. While Bradley’s past efforts have been interesting and well received, if a tad ghoulish, Shadow wouldn’t have had the same impact had it not been shot by an artist of Lachman’s caliber. Near the end of dinner, someone whispered to me that the piece really was about Bradley discovering Lachman; I would agree.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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