San Antonio Express-News
By Dan R. Goddard
During a 1999 residency at ArtPace, Isaac Julien used three screens in his cinematic installation 'The Long Road to Mazatlán,' a highly choreographed, lyrical meditation on the Western myth and the cowboy as gay icon. That work led to a nomination for Britain's 2001 Turner Prize.
Now Julien's back with two different three-screen art films, 'Paradise Omeros,' based on Caribbean poet Derek Walcott's Nobel Prize-winning epic poem, and 'Baltimore,' an homage to blaxploitation films of the 1970s starring pioneering director Melvin Van Peebles.
'Paradise Omeros' is showing through Dec. 14 in ArtPace's Hudson (Show) Room. 'Baltimore' is set for Dec. 17-Jan. 25. Also featured are prints based on the films that Julien made with San Antonio's Hare and Hound Press.
'I developed my three-screen process in San Antonio, but filmmakers have been using three screens for many years, notably director Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' in 1927,' Julien said. 'Of course, in art history, there's a long history of using the triptych, from medieval religious painters to Max Beckmann.
'I think multiple screens work better now because we're so used to multitasking. The triptych is very architectural. It brings a more sculptural experience to cinema. It gives me much more speed and dexterity.'
Julien is a visiting professor in African American studies at Harvard University, but he remains based in London, where he was born in 1960.
He first made a name for himself as a filmmaker in the early 1980s as a founding member of the Sankofa Film/Video Collective, dedicated to exploring new ways of representing black identity. He won a 1991 Cannes Critics Prize for his first feature-length film, 'Young Soul Rebels,' a portrait of 1980s London's multiracial music scene. His best known works are biographical meditations on the lives of influential black authors, especially 'Looking for Langston' (1989) about the life, politics and sexuality of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
Probably Julien's most mainstream documentary is 'Baadasssss Cinema,' which was shown last summer as part of the Independent Film Channel's blaxploitation festival of '70s films such as 'Foxy Brown,' 'Superfly' and 'Shaft's Big Score.' Director Quentin Tarantino, who revived the genre with 'Jackie Brown' in 1997, is featured along with the era's stars and directors such as Pam Grier, Gloria Hendry, Fred 'the Hammer' Williamson and Van Peebles, who ignited the genre with his seminal blaxploitation movie 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.'
'It's the only art film from the genre. All of the rest of them are trying to be like Hollywood films,' Julien said. 'I was teaching a course at Harvard on black film and the African Diaspora and my students began talking about these films. After listening to them, I began to develop this idea of combining high brow and popular culture in my art films.'
In the 11-minute 'Baltimore,' Julien not only brings back the hallmarks of black action films — billowing Afros, funky fashion, gritty stylized violence and empowered black protagonists, both male and female — he also borrows a few tricks from 'The Matrix' and Hong Kong martial arts flicks.
Baltimore's Contemporary Museum commissioned the film, which uses other Baltimore museums for its locations, including the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University and the Walters Museum.
'I wanted to use the language of blaxploitation while showing off the collections in these museums,' Julien said. 'Melvin Van Peebles is the main character, and Vanessa Myrie is the black femme fatale, a combination of Pam Grier and Angela Davis.
Originally, I wanted to call the film 'Baltimore 2054,' because when Vanessa takes off her wig, she becomes an Afro cyborg. She turns into a gaming character, and I use all those gestures and motifs as well.' I
n the film's 'Matrix' moment, Myrie leaps high in the air and freezes while the camera zooms around her in the dome of one of the museums. With gun in hand, she pursues Van Peebles until he finally confronts a wax figure of himself. There's a thumping R&B/soul soundtrack and ear-cracking special effects.
With three screens, Julien can use mirror images and sometimes even turn images upside down. He uses three 16 mm cameras to film the action and with computer editing can combine the images for wide pans or have characters move fluidly from one screen to the next.
Although there is no dialogue, the simple story line is conveyed through the vivid imagery. Among the black historical wax figures are Julian Bond, Mary Carter Smith, Adam Clayton Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Billie Holiday, Martin Luther King Jr., Zora Neale Hurston, Colin Powell and Jackie Robinson.
'I had a wax figure for Melvin Van Peebles made, but otherwise used what was in the museums,' Julien said. 'The Walters Museum reminds me of the Royal Academy in London.' One of the main paintings featured from the Walters is 'View of an Ideal City' (ca. 1490-1505) by an unknown central Italian artist that Julien contrasts with an opening shot of the downtown Baltimore skyline and expressways.
'Here at ArtPace, we've been able to use rear projection, which I think enhances the sharpness and detail of the pictures,' Julien said. 'This is a project I've been working on for four years.'
'Baltimore' won the grand jury award at the Kunst Film Biennale in Germany and is currently being featured in an exhibit through Nov. 29 at the Metro Pictures Gallery in New York City.
The lush, tropical colors of St. Lucia contrast with the duller tones of urban London in 'Paradise Omeros' (2002), which debuted at Documenta 11 in Kassell, Germany.
The film actually began as a series of photographs of a black man on a tropical beach that Julien and Hare and Hound Press turned into digital prints, which were featured in a recent survey of regional presses at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center.
Using a minimum of dialogue, the 20-minute film traces the experiences of a black man from the Caribbean who journeys to London and tries to adapt. A masked trickster, shaman figure haunts him. Dreamlike, the man emerges from dazzling blue seawater to the dreariness of London.
But the longest sequence takes place at a party in a London flat, exploring the protagonist's changing moods and emotions against a backdrop of people dancing to vintage swing music. Remarkably, this scene was shot in one take after two weeks of rehearsal.
'I heightened the colors to enhance the painting aspect,' Julien said. 'To me, it's about the creolization of language and culture. The film is somewhat autobiographical, but really I consider it a tribute to my mother. It's about the struggle for self-identity.'
'Paradise Omeros' is running through Dec. 14 at ArtPace, 445 N. Main Ave., (210) 212-4900. A brown bag lunch and lecture is scheduled for Dec. 3.
'Baltimore' will be shown Dec. 17-Jan. 25. A brown bag is set for Jan. 14. Admission is free; hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays and until 8 p.m. Thursdays.
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