Paulina Hollers, an exhibition comprising three homemade animated videos and a tall spindly clock situated at the entrance of Bellwether Gallery, doesn't appear at first to be so full of the unexpected. The work looks like a Tim Burton movie, it sounds like a combination of the spoken-word psychedelia of King Missile and the emo indie of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst (his collaborators are actually blues rock band Califone and noise rockers the Majik Markers), it reads like a Virginia Woolf novel or a T.S. Eliot poem -- everything feels familiar in some way. Yet the success of this exhibition does not lie in the reinvention of the wheel, but rather that Green never confuses the maudlin with the poetic or inconsistency with falseness.
The three shorts all follow separate narratives that can be linked thematically to the paradox of the death and of life. The title film, the longest of these works at 20 minutes, tells the story of “an asshole kid” named Holler who goes to Hell for trying to kill a rabbit on the side of the road. His gardening, religious mother Paulina is distraught when she hears her child has been hit by a bus; she soon kills herself to retrieve her son from whatever exile he’s been sent to. But upon departing her 3D existence for the hand-drawn underworld, Paulina discovers she cannot escape as planned. So there she stays. No tidy ending completes this story, and Green leaves the viewer with only the suggestion that to forget the beauty that surrounds us may take us places we don’t want to go.
Like most poetry, pretty much everything in this Demeter-and-Persophone-esque story is open to interpretation: Neither the film's defining bittersweet moments nor its slightly fragmented narrative leave us with one specific punchline to tell our friends. As I see it, there is no hope in Green’s Hell, though there may be some redemption found in the remembrance of what we had (and what we did; Hell is lined with blind singing rabbits).
In the seven-minute-long Carlin, the group's strongest entry, Green tells a story about his dying diabetic aunt who comes to live with the family at age 35. Throughout the video the artist explores the paradoxes of death and decay: that his aunt Carlin could be sane enough to know that the drugs have side effects she doesn’t like yet lack the sanity to be able to put together sentences properly; that Carlin’s personality becomes more fleshed out and grounded to the artist while the disease simultaneously removes parts of her body; and that there is a warmth and beauty that can exist within all this though sickness dominates her death. Allusions to Woolf and Bob Dylan songs about war help underscore these ideas, as does the momentum of narrative itself; words are spoken so quickly that, like life, you don’t have enough time to ponder the meaning before it has passed you by.
And in this sense, perhaps, the fact that we miss or forget the beauty of the world is just as inevitable as death itself. After all, no one -- not even Santa Claus, the protagonist of the third film, Hadacol Christmas -- can hold onto all of the good in the world. In fact, Green paints Santa closer to a frail alcoholic witch with a bloodied liver than a jovial candy-hearted gift giver. Only relative to the other practically flawless films in this exhibition does this video invite minor criticism; the problem stems not from the continuance of the paradox, which transfers itself seamlessly to the story, but from the fact that there is less room for narrative development in the use of an archetype. Still constituting a noteworthy film, Hadacol Christmas humorously turns Santa Claus into a tortured inventor, who accidentally hollers “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in the midst of his sickness, spilling his work into the snow banks below.
You obviously can’t fault an artist responsible for making an excellent film, but it does make sense to observe that the very best work he does comes from personal experience. It also makes sense that it should, because nothing teaches us more about the contradictions within beauty than experiencing it for ourselves.
Brent Green will present Paulina Hollers tonight at 7:30 at IFC Center, followed by a conversation with Filmmaker Magazine editor Scott Macaulay. Green's work will be featured at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival; a Jan. 23 screening at The Knitting Factory features live musical accompaniment by the Magik Markers and Brendan Canty from Fugazi.
Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.
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