Cinema Scope | You Can’t Own an Idea: The Films of James N. Kienitz Wilkins

By Dan Sullivan

Rare lately is the filmmaker who proclaims that cinema is firstly a medium of concepts fairly than of photographs and sounds, and few have made the case as strongly as James N. Kienitz Wilkins. For the higher part of the past decade, the 35-year-old New York-based artist has occupied a singular position on the periphery of American unbiased filmmaking. His movies—4 options and seven brief works for cinema, installation, and even planetarium (The Dynamic Vary, 2018)—fail to easily place him within any specific scene or tradition. A classmate of Gabriel Abrantes and Alexander Carver’s at Cooper Union, he has, like them, straddled the movie and artwork worlds; inside the movie pageant context, he has moved freely between narrative and strictly experimental sections, not fairly a new member of the avant-garde establishment nor an up-and-coming fashioner of droll microbudget films. Seemingly immune to the thought of carving out a single place for himself and sustaining it for very lengthy, the prolific Wilkins has launched one of the more strikingly frenetic investigations into the life of the mind and the lives of artists, race, cash, and know-how in current cinema, playfully and thoughtfully posing robust questions concerning the options of the modern world we are likely to take as a right.

The status of language and writing within cinema and culture extra broadly is a serious concern all through Wilkins’ work. His first function, Public Listening to (2012), brazenly challenged the traditional understanding of what a screenplay may be. Starkly lit and shot on familiarly grainy black-and-white 16mm, Public Hearing is a filmed re-enactment of a 2006 town-hall debate in Allegany, New York, concerning whether or not an area Walmart ought to be allowed to be replaced by a Super Walmart, the instances for and towards introduced by a panel of audio system who are framed by Wilkins with the type of effortless artfulness of prime Frederick Wiseman. Public Listening to is one thing of an extravagant gag: a movie which superficially resembles canonical works of cinéma vérité, but in contrast to them, it has in reality been scripted, sourced from a publicly accessible PDF transcript for the type of occasion, barely recognizable as such, that may never otherwise be represented in cinema on account of its excessive banality. If not for the skillful, visually satisfying method during which Wilkins renders the proceedings, we’d virtually say that Public Hearing, like sure films of Andy Warhol, is a movie one doesn’t need to observe so as to “get the joke.” The narrative info that the film conveys is available to anyone with web access; anyone with the inclination and the assets might conceivably have made it, perhaps complicating our perception of Wilkins as the movie’s writer in the classical sense. The textual content of Public Listening to stands aside from its staging, capable of being wrested from this aesthetic context—a tasteful, faithfully reproduced cinematic remedy—and placed in one other. (Although, in later films, Wilkins will make the case for why cinema is the perfect medium for capturing our historic present in all its majesty and inanity.) The written word, readymade or not, refuses to be exhausted by the conventionally pleasing photographs Wilkins composes to symbolize it. The gesture is positively Duchampian, the porcelain urinal changed by a PDF.

In Wilkins’ movies, issues of language are never removed from the query of know-how, particularly the relationship between the internet and the imaginary. In any case, how would we entry a PDF transcript of a 2006 town hall meeting in Allegany, New York if not on-line? Know-how mediates our notion of the world round us and of our personal interiority, and by forwarding us a gentle stream of New York Occasions articles, status tv exhibits, NPR interviews, and so on, it likewise populates our imagination with characters, situations, and settings, successfully offering the fabric for the fantasies staged inside the subconscious. The brief films that comprise Wilkins’ “Andre” Trilogy—Special Options (2014), Tester (2015), and B-ROLL with Andre (2015)—explore the fault line between the technological and cultural realms, each of them using found (or pseudo-found) parts to think about the extent to which well-liked culture has primarily authored our goals.

Special Features assumes the shape of an interview, filmed with an previous video digital camera, carried out by Wilkins with an African American man (performed by three totally different actors at numerous factors of the film) who recounts a dream (or was it?) involving another man—the trilogy’s titular Andre—working security at a celebration at Shaquille O’Neal’s home. (“It was plotted like a movie, so vivid,” he says.) However his dream’s significance appears to reside not in its psychoanalytic implications, nor within the metaphysical contradiction its subject embodies (the dwelling lifeless), however in know-how and the internet’s position in figuring out the contents of his story. The man’s account most intently resembles a hazy recollection of a YouTube video seen at some unsure level prior to now, and Wilkins seizes upon this narrative fuzziness to blur the strains between both plain previous lived experience and technologically mediated expertise (is there any difference?), fiction and fact, and the digital and the actual. The film plays with the instability of the interviewee’s id, being incarnated by three totally different actors, but in addition with the question of how a man who claims to have died might be sitting earlier than us making jokes about Shaq’s lone career three-pointer—after Wilkins explains to him that the interview is being shot with three-point lighting. If not for Wilkins’ deployment of the artifice of cinema, this character couldn’t exist, but the contents of his story—fragments of film plots, sports trivia, news articles—would. Modern id is cast within the crucible of know-how as a lot as that of culture, for higher or worse.

Tester and B-ROLL with Andre also meditate on the unconscious and metaphysical results of technological improvement, they usually convey language again into the thematic fold in a more concerted means by introducing Wilkins’ penchant for monologue. Tester combines an previous found Beta SP tape shot within a nondescript office park-like setting with a soundtrack that begins with an ironic blaring guitar solo before giving strategy to a mile-a-minute comic gumshoe voiceover. The text delivered, written by Wilkins, is dense with alliteration and wordplay, and it returns to the dream thematic established in Particular Features in addition to know-how’s uncanny transformation of the bodily and psychological realms. In B-ROLL with Andre, the interview and monologue types are folded collectively to deal with the financial dimension of cinema. The movie is a stylized, staged interview of a person whose face has been obscured, and Wilkins has him muse on the shifting which means of everydayness in an more and more digital world (“Just drinking a cup of coffee—that’s the kind of thing that appealed to me”) and pitch a movie about digitally savvy art thieves entitled eBoyz. The prospect of earning money for one’s ideas connects Wilkins’ preoccupation with language to his nascent interest in the artist as an financial topic who makes an attempt to make a dwelling within an industrial context. However it additionally finds him beginning to situate his personal work inside the world of cinema at giant: he makes use of an excerpt of Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch’s score for David Fincher’s Gone Woman (2014) to (nevertheless paradoxically) inject canned environment to the proceedings, although the interviewee refers to it as “the whitest film noir”; the query of how you can earn cash with out compromising one’s inventive and intellectual integrity whereas working in a capitalistic and incessantly corny mass medium like cinema will recur again and again in Wilkins’ subsequent movies.

Occupations (2015) finds Wilkins kind of abandoning the irony of Public Hearing and the Andre Trilogy in its portrait of an occupational therapist, Brandon D’Augustine, whom we see driving at night time and wandering in snowy woods, unpacking the concept of “occupation” (understood as how one spends one’s time, moderately than how one earns one’s lease) as pictures of golden bodies posed towards a black background are intercut and matched with a faint church organ played by Wilkins’ mother. Wilkins highlights the relevance of D’Augustine’s therapeutic apply to filmmaking—in any case, film manufacturing is hardly a purely psychological activity, and an artist should create by relying upon a bodily physique that can break down and fall into disrepair. This materialist flip, introducing bodies to an inventive investigation that had previously been more involved with abstract phenomena like ideas, cultural signifiers, economic practices, and the like, sets the desk for Wilkins’ later, theatre-minded works Mediums (2017) and The Republic (2017), but the film additionally lays naked the private dimension of his work via the inclusion of his mom’s organ-playing, and its photographs of D’Augustine walking within the woods that evoke Wilkins’ native Maine.

Few of Wilkins’ films resemble one another stylistically; his is a particularly stressed formalism, and every movie appears to discover a new mould into which he pours his pet obsessions. Widespread Service (2017) is among the many most visually adventurous of his long-form experiments, a feature-length quasi-narrative movie that consists virtually completely of superimposed pictures of a disparate community of artists grappling with financial nervousness both in life and in artwork. The film’s motion wittily goofs on the pageant circuit (including an whole subplot a few DCP drive misplaced by FedEx) and the movie business, bad-faith liberal failures at attaining actual solidarity with the American working class, and the ubiquity of hip-hop music counterposed to the US’ history of racism and the continued economic oppression of its black population. His use of pop music recorded off the radio, most notably several tracks from Rihanna’s 2016 album ANTI, is especially instrumental on this last rely, with the juxtaposition of “Work” and an picture of a hammer putting an awl suggesting capitalism’s simultaneous profiting off black music and systematic mistreatment of black labour.

However as dense as the narrative of Widespread Service is with concepts about race, cinema, and labour, it’s just as wealthy pictorially. The film’s visible conceit—near-constant, start-to-finish superimposition—isn’t essentially wholly successful, however at a number of points it obtains a radical flourish in contrast to anything in Wilkins’ oeuvre. Actions are seen from multiple views on the similar time that picture and sound weave in and out of synchronization, our view of the proceedings charged with the identical type of schizoid nervousness that marks the capitalist processes underlying the occasions of the film’s plot. Area and time are collapsed into each other just as capital perpetually collapses artwork and commerce, labour and exploitation, violence and spectacle to create an unstable, anxious financial system outlined by mass consumption, financial precarity, and social control by means of debt. At one level, Wilkins’ character describes a figure from a dream, “a blur of a million people I’ve seen before,” and later talks about meeting somebody who was, one way or the other, a perfect synthesis of two different individuals he’d met before—the delirium conjured by the movie’s visual conceit mirrors the indeterminacy of social actuality beneath at present’s capitalist regime, a frenzy of branding and scamming with out finish.

In 2017, Wilkins unveiled two somewhat idiosyncratic works specializing in his relationship to theatre: Mediums and The Republic (the latter in collaboration with Robin Schavoir). Mediums, which premiered in that yr’s Whitney Biennial, marks the apex of Wilkins’ tendency to predicate a movie’s type upon a sort of joke. A medium-length movie (almost 40 minutes) comprised totally of medium photographs (static tableaux, two- and three-shots principally, of actors posed towards an uncannily artificial set comprised of massively blown-up pictures), it tracks a collection of conversations between a gaggle of prospective jurors passing time outdoors a courthouse on the primary day of jury obligation. The dialogue is culled virtually totally from found sources, as listed in the film’s credit: the New York State Unified Courtroom System’s Trial Jurors Handbook; a Volkswagen guide; the SAG-AFTRA constitution; Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996); a franchise disclosure doc from Dunkin’ Donuts; copy from the New York State health plan market; textual content from the US Copyright Office’s web site; and some weblog posts. The earnest tone of the dialogue strikes a captivating counterpoint to Wilkins’ laissez-faire borrowing of text, and its self-conscious mise en scène—the bodies of on a regular basis individuals posed towards a backdrop of a simulated courthouse, typically with a view of the Dunkin’ Donuts throughout the street—embodies Wilkins’ interest within the relationship between cinema and theatre. There’s little that’s quintessentially cinematic about Mediums, however Wilkins is conscious of this: the movie represents dramatic artwork degree zero, in a way the bare minimum required for something to even rely as a film, however it however surpasses the earlier Public Listening to as an uncommonly funny work addressing the ontological question, “What is a film?”

An much more radical work on cinema’s relation to theatre is The Republic. Three-and-a-half hours lengthy and devoid of photographs, The Republic “stages” an whole play—previous libertarians pursuing their very own version of utopia by any means needed (don’t tread on them). The movie has an accompanying illustrated screenplay (accessible on Wilkins’ website, that hints on the circumstances that catalyzed the completion of this singular work. With out the money essential to movie a script as formidable as The Republic, Schavoir and Wilkins as an alternative produced it as a movie and not using a visual dimension. The action of The Republic, whose title self-consciously evokes Plato, unfurls totally within an epic cascade of actorly voices, suggesting a radio play for the internet age: the absence of photographs encountered in watching the film conjure each virtuality (the movie that would have been, the movie which may sometime be) and self-reflexivity (by design, the experience of viewing The Republic is concerning the query, “Is this a film at all?”). Theatre with out presence, cinema without photographs—that The Republic however looks like a formidable work of both mediums attests to the sheer substantiality of Wilkins and Schavoir’s experiment.

Wilkins’ next brief, Indefinite Pitch (2017), consists of a succession of black-and-white pictures of impartial nature scenes—shimmering water, twigs on the perimeter of a pond, and so forth.—while most of his central themes are encapsulated by a single breathless monologue that accompanies these pictures. Indefinite Pitch fixates on Berlin, New Hampshire, notable for, among different issues, the fact that it’s named for the German capital, and for its proximity to Maine. (Though Wilkins is careful to note that, at the time of the film’s completion, he had never been to Berlin in New Hampshire nor in Germany.) Extra pertinently, Berlin, NH is the setting for a 1927 pulp film serial, The Masked Menace, which, by some associative alchemy, prompts Wilkins’ monologist to pursue a line of considering that connects economic discomfort (“I need money,” he states plain and clear), to the psychic burden of racial circumstance (“We’re born with our masks”), to some aspirationally even-keeled resignation to the quotidian current (“I confess I’m going with the flow”), to the folly of the film-industrial rat race (he concludes on the will to submit the film to the “Berlin Film Festival”—which, finally, he didn’t, as an alternative premiering at Locarno). But curiously, Wilkins sees something upright within the cinema versus its more humourless counterpart, the artwork world: he cites cinema’s status as a mass medium, an art accessible to rich and poor alike, as its redeeming high quality, the inverse of the stratified, access-impoverished and status-hungry world of superb arts. The monologue’s pitch shifts significantly throughout the movie, forcing Wilkins’ voice in aurally cartoonish directions, but this too seems to be grounded in an impeccable turn of thought. He evokes the early years of sound cinema and the pitch-shifting exercised by sound editors to ensure that a film’s soundtrack would retain synchronization with the picture, and at the very same time, Indefinite Pitch itself—a digitally produced film projected within a cinema on DCP or streamed by way of Vimeo, MUBI, and so on., on a pc—visually meditates on the ramifications of a movie that generates a frame price within the absence of perceptible motion.

“The way I see it, movies move,” Wilkins declares in his subsequent monologue film, This Motion Lies (2018), made for Centre d’Artwork Contemporain Genève’s Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement. A styrofoam cup of coffee is seen several occasions, with fluctuations in gradient distinguishing one Warholian lengthy take from the subsequent. The voiceover claims to be delivering an apology, but as an alternative makes use of the concept of the apology as some extent of departure for a rambling investigation that once more revisits the query of the medium’s ontology, although now with a mind to material issues: Wilkins equates life with motion and proclaims cinema the art of motion, however he additionally, after wringing his arms over the destiny of a DCP-containing thumb drive in Widespread Service, now worries concerning the bodily manifestation of his own work. What does it mean for a movie to exist and yet never assume the form of a celluloid strip? Not keen to seek out out, Wilkins speculates as to the way to get a maintain of a curator in the movie division at the Museum of Trendy Art, step-by-step tracing the route by which one may work out the way to get a maintain of an worker of a outstanding cultural institution, hoping that they’ll elect to strike a print of one of his films.

But just as salient as his nervousness about his own profession is his nervousness about having newly grow to be a father: all of the sudden, all of his frustrations about being an artist are refracted by way of the prism of familial obligation, now having to make a dwelling for himself and for others. It helps to retain his ties to the everyday, though—Dunkin’ Donuts is again dissected at length, linked to the charmingly proletarian incompleteness of development sites, regionalism (via its cultish reputation in its founding New England), and the bodily movement of dunking one object into one other. At this comparatively late stage of the sport—almost seven years after the completion and premiere of Public Hearing—Wilkins characterizes his personal strategy in This Action Lies as “searching for a method,” echoing the title of an essay by Jean-Paul Sartre that served as the introduction of his second systematic masterwork, the Critique of Dialectical Cause. But more primarily, This Action Lies evokes Sartre’s fellow countryman, Marcel Duchamp. The urinal is once more changed, this time by a styrofoam cup; the “R. Mutt” signature replaced by a voiceover narration that digs into the perils and anxieties of a working filmmaker dwelling in a capitalist society who has simply had a child. The documentary high quality of Wilkins’ work is one of its subtlest and most vital, and the affecting fullness with which he captures the quotidian psychology of our age in his monologue seems to substantiate his belief in cinema’s capacity to doc one’s historical circumstances, regardless of its easily misguided, capitalist nature.

Wilkins’ signature is in all places evident in Peter Parlow’s feature-length The Plagiarists (2019), which he co-wrote with Schavoir and shot/edited himself with a vintage Betamax digital camera. (Wilkins produced Parlow’s debut function, The Jag [2015], a chamber play about escalating tensions between a hipster carpenter/aspiring screenwriter and a troublingly uptight venture capitalist in an upstate nation residence.) More classically narrative than Wilkins’ personal features, the primary half of The Plagiarists chronicles the experience of a bobo couple, a novelist named Anna (Lucy Kaminsky) and a annoyed would-be filmmaker named Tyler (Eamon Monaghan), who’re waylaid by snow and automotive troubles en path to their pal Alison’s (Emily Davis) home upstate. They’re bailed out by an opportunity encounter with Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne of Parliament Funkadelic), who gives to offer them shelter for the night time and to hook them up with a mechanic pal in the morning. Hesitantly, they take him up on this, and the trio proceeds to spend a principally affable evening cooking, consuming, capturing the shit, and chopping it up about Dogme 95 and what a bummer it is capturing commercials with soulless modern digital cameras at some impossibly high resolution. Anna and Tyler are confused by some particulars about Clip—as an example, who is the inexplicable little blond white boy enjoying video games upstairs in his house? And the way does he know Alison?—but two of his gestures prompt them to overlook the anomaly, a minimum of for the night time. First, he presents tech-geek Tyler an previous industrial-grade video digital camera (not in contrast to the one on which the movie is shot) for use in his inventive and business filmmaking practices, and he delivers an intensely lyrical memory of his youth to Anna that, although seemingly out of character, strikes her profoundly. Flash forward some months later, and the couple is again on their means to stick with Alison, bickering within the automotive while Anna thumbs by means of a replica of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Wrestle, Guide 3. She is alarmed to come upon a passage within the novel that feels oddly acquainted: lo and behold, Clip’s earlier soliloquy was plagiarized wholesale from Knausgaard. The discovery rattles her, and the rest of the movie finds her discussing the matter with Tyler and Alison. What’s the large deal exactly? On what grounds does this represent a betrayal of Anna’s trust, and why can’t she help however feel violated?

Wilkins and Schavoir’s script attributes the couple’s unsettled feeling to a quintessentially trendy type of race panic, whereby the nominally liberal white couple are absolutely conscious of the racial dynamics at work in their relationship with this black stranger whom they’ve solely briefly met however are however beset by a cloying sense that one thing is off, one thing is value being afraid of. Parlow, Wilkins, and Schavoir once more wield cinematic artifice to concretize this feeling via the movie’s type: Clip never occupies the identical handheld frame as Tyler and Anna, and certainly, Michael Payne was never bodily present on set at the similar time that Monaghan and Kaminsky have been. (The three actors, at the time of this article’s writing, have by no means all met.) This sly gesture is referenced inside the movie itself: when Tyler and Anna are driving in its second half, a assessment of Lynne Ramsay’s You Have been Never Actually Right here (2017) plays in the background on NPR.

The film riffs on the plagiarism theme manifest in its title not solely by way of Clip’s obvious act of uncredited quotation however by way of its personal poster, which is sort of near being a carbon copy of the poster for Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Look (2018), a film through which Wilkins appeared in a small position. The theme of intellectual property that has recurred sporadically all through all Wilkins’ work thus returns, front and centre: downplaying his personal inventive aspirations and achievements, Tyler tells Anna “a screenplay is just an idea, it’s not a film…you can’t own an idea.” In fact, the gag right here is that, in a way, Wilkins and Schavoir had previously made a movie, The Republic, which assumed the shape of a screenplay read aloud, but buried beneath the joke is a barbed statement concerning the now-tenuous relation between the act of writing and the recognition of concepts as property that may achieve and lose worth and may perform in the broader market, identical to the aspirational stake in a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise mentioned in Mediums.

As in Widespread Service, The Plagiarists hyperlinks the myriad frustrations of the life of an artist to know-how. Tyler hates the work he has to do to make a dwelling, partially as a result of it forces him to work with cameras that produce pictures that are too clear and insufficiently trendy, that don’t appear to problem from the previous. Tyler neglects to elucidate why an picture should look previous so as to be art, however that is exactly the type of unexamined angle that might be at house inside the inventive milieu that The Plagiarists skewers. The movie’s dialogue paradoxically evokes Dogme 95, mumblecore, and the like, though the movie itself bears a robust superficial resemblance to them. For all its jokes on the expense of Parlow’s lo-fi forebears, The Plagiarists is one thing like a conceptually baroque homage to the very movies and filmmakers it’s taking the piss out of, with a wealth of foolish, jazzy stock music (given full attribution in the long run credit) on the film’s soundtrack additional emphasizing its personal irony. Schavoir and Wilkins manage to have their cake and eat it, too: the provocations of their script and Wilkins’ uncanny modifying construction—stitching together pictures of actors who by no means physically shared the same area—are inextricably sure up in its pleasures. “The feeling of being talked to by a real human voice is needed now,” Alison says in a letter learn in voiceover in the course of the film’s ultimate sequence. I might only add that there is one voice particularly, Wilkins’, which ranks among the many most crucial in cinema at present.