Broken Mirrors: Tim Leyendekker’s you may find yourself

Simone Bennett’s The Truth Machine (2007) begins with an epigram:

“Truth is a mirror which fell to earth in a million pieces, and each human being picked up a piece, looked at it and saw themselves reflected. And each decided they saw the truth…but not realizing that truth is splintered among all people.”

Bennett’s video appeared at UnionDocs as part of “you may find yourself: Short Films Exploring The Urban Landscape”, a program composed of 7 works to which this fable of the multiplicitous and polysemous nature of truth could have applied equally. Curated by Dutch filmmaker Tim Leyendekker, the evening was devoted to documentaries or quasi-documentaries that share an ambivalence about the authority of the camera and the certainties of narrative. But even more telling than the fable’s content was the banality of its presentation. I can imagine liking many of these films in a different context, but what struck me here was their basic refusal to confront the problems they highlight. Together, these works appeared timid, fussy, and inert.

In The Truth Machine Purchase , the narration gives way to a harsh buzzing sound as the camera swoops upward from dark grass and begins traversing a Purchase Purchase tableau vivant. Actors hold positions from a moment following a sedan-on-RV car crash. Moving past them across the road, the camera reaches a woman who holds up a glistening shard of mirror glass. Bennett plays with the effects of motion and time, but as a long gaze at a split second scene, The Truth Machine cannot but suggest the conditions of photography. Its light and setting recall Joel Sternfeld’s uncanny landscape scenes from the 1970s, but the execution — the elaborate, plodding crane shot, the human bodies in pregnant poses, and the deliberate artifice — is closer to Gregory Crewdson’s smug big-budget stagings. The whole thing unfurls with little surprise. Its designs are clear early on, and the camera merely completes its inexorable course to a conclusion that does not much enlarge or illuminate the introductory parable.

Volko Kamensky’s Oral History (2009) likewise uses artifice to complicate the reality of the film image. A camera mechanically pans back and forth across what appears to be a quaint German town as voices on the soundtrack relay various events from its history. But this is fiction presented as fact. Neither the town nor the stories are real. Kamensky is shrewder than Bennett, but he too sacrifices experiential depth for conceptual clarity. The pseudo-historical text is itself so rarefied that the post-facto reveal just shuffles the rug rather than pulling it out from under you.

The films on the bill that directly explore actuality play out in the shadows of these two theoretical baubles. Leyendekker included two of his own works in the program, which he put together, he said, partly to contextualize himself. This grounding indeed helps elucidate his rather hermetic films. In still (1989), he shows us two autumn scenes: an empty bench sitting outside a building of vague institutional quality, and a small square of forest floor striated by sunlight, both of them shot pixilated over the course of a few hours to convey the passage of time. The screen goes black after the second shot, and we hear an awkward, even desultory, exchange between two young men making a date over a chat line. This is an early effort, and while Leyendekker’s sensitive cinematography captures a certain seasonal wistfulness, the whole thing is so slight and unspectacular that its riddle does not beckon. The Healers (2010), his latest film, is a clearer articulation of the same ambitions. Another triptych, the film’s first section is montage of strobe lights and abstract motion set to assaultive Euro techno beats. Leyendekker tightens the reins in the second part, the film’s longest, giving us a series of quiet, beautifully composed static images of an empty nightclub in the light of day. In frames either packed with alluring detail or pared down to minimalist design, Leyendekker takes us through the club’s dance floor and bar to the backroom bathrooms, and sex stalls — there’s even a modest little dungeon, complete with a harness. In the final segment, the camera sweeps 360 degrees around a group of men in a recording studio, reading from a script that describes a strange, volatile encounter between two men who met at the club we have just seen. Both films revel in a kind of fragmentary personal obscurantism. Leyendekker decouples his experience into individual strands and assembles them in parallel so that they refract, but do not explain one another.

Leyendekker turns inward, but the other films on the program venture into the wider social world. Subject matter aside, Jørgen Leth’s 66 Scenes From America (1982) is something of an outlier. One of two films on the bill made prior to the new millennium, 66 Scenes is distinctly of its era. A travelogue broken into postcard-like vignettes from an era rich with half-ironic, half-longing (and typically European) odes to the big, weird American landscape, it immediately recalls a number of filial relations: Robert Frank’s Purchase The Americans, Baudrillard’s America, many books by Peter Handke, and, most notably, the early films of Wim Wenders, whose Alice in the Cities sports a roadtripping, Polaroid-mad protagonist who could have directed 66 Scenes . Leth, like the other European art tourists, has a wry appreciation for American sincerity and capitalist excess — its most famous scene is a long static take of Andy Warhol, dry and detached as ever, working his way through a Whopper — but he does not peddle an overarching thesis about the country. Like Leyendekker, he emphasizes the part above the whole. While the film’s first half is electric with possibility, by the end, Leth’s refusal to synthesize his findings seems less like resistance to the constraints of documentary than a lack of anything to say. The film’s vintage is its primary interest — Leth captures the striking regional variety of the old United States, just before much of it was rendered a Möbius strip of chain restaurants and prefabricated design.

Like 66 Scenes, Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s God Provides is a letter to home sent by uncomprehending tourists.Two among countless filmmakers who have traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans, Cassidy and Shatzky distinguish themselves through disorientation. Apart from the now familiar devastation, nothing in the film directly indicates that it was made in New Orleans. The filmmakers lead us through a series of disconnected scenes of the clean-up effort, most of them sad and absurd, by crosscutting with a throughline that propels the film forward: the camera tracks alongside a woman with an unspecified disability as she travels on the shoulder of the road in a motorized wheelchair, as a voice on the soundtrack describes the woody area she often visits to collect her thoughts. During the Q&A, Cassidy and Shatzky said that while most documentary filmmakers seek to enlighten, they wanted to mystify their subject. But rather than present the awesome enigma of everyday life following a disaster on the scale of Katrina, they pour on their mystifications after the fact, laying on a viscous goop of discombobulating styles. The film’s halfhearted Southern Gothic and disability exotica would likely be offensive if there were any conviction to the film.

In A Necessary Music (2008), Beatrice Gibson and Alex Waterman also seek refuge in the uncertain. Their video portrays life on Roosevelt Island, the odd little strip on the East River between Manhattan and Queens that has hosted a penitentiary, an insane asylum, and a smallpox hospital, and which is now home to more than 10,000 people who live packed into Modernist housing blocks. An ethnography of sorts, the film faces the notorious perils of documentary authority more directly than anything else in Leyendekker’s program. To meet this task, Gibson and Waterman throw everything at the wall, employing most of the tactics seen in the other films, and add others for good measure, transforming the ethnographic portrait into what they call a science fiction film. The film’s narration, read by the great composer Robert Ashley, is mostly borrowed from Bioy-Casares’ The Invention of Morel. Gibson and Waterman conducted interviews with residents, but they scramble the image and sound, matching one subject’s words with the face of another, thwarting any attempt at direct interpretation. These tortured obfuscations bring us no closer to the residents of Roosevelt Island or the mechanisms of documentary.

The concerns about film’s claim to truth that are at the heart of these works have animated nearly every serious non-fiction film produced in the last 30-odd years. Leyendekker’s program reveals — inadvertently, one must assume — the old tactics of experimental documentary sedimented into pastiche. The Healers , the best film of the evening, manages to represent some of the allusive interstices of experience, but most of these films not only fail to tell us something about the world, they are incapable of even describing it. Order