Sundance Features

January 19, 2007

R. Luke DuBois, Play and Academy

"I think it's interesting how in every cultural medium we have in the United States, we have some kind of weird ranking system to try and figure out what's the best."

One-six-hundredth of the Playboy Playmates featured in R. Luke DuBois' Play

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So: One film at a time, I guess. What is Play?

It's just a 50-second video, and what it is every Playboy playmate of the month for the first 50 years of Playboy -- 12 a second, so there's a year every second -- and all I did was cropped out their faces and centered their eyes. So it's 50 years of Playboy in 50 seconds; these flickering images of these women staring back at you.

How does Playboy Enterprises feel about this?

I have no idea. I know some writers at Playboy have seen it and think it's pretty cool, but I have no idea. But I don't really show it as a film; I install it in a picture frame and hang it on a wall. And then Academy is a similar riff: It's every Academy Award-winning best picture, basically from Wings up until... I think I stopped with Chicago in 2002. And I compressed them to one minute each -- 76 movies in 76 minutes -- and the way I compressed it wasn't to just skip around, but rather to take the entire film and average it down so it turns into this big blur basically -- this big crazy blur for each movie. It gives you sort of an overview of a kind of cinematic history for 75 years or so.

What was the motivation?

I did a whole set; there's actually a third piece called Billboard; it's a sound piece. I did all the number one pop songs from 1958 to 2000, where I shrunk them all to one second for every week they were at number one. It was sort of this trio of pieces about pop culture in canon; all those things -- those films and those images of women and the pop songs -- are part of the American cultural canon. We value them; we like to think that the Academy Awards movies are the best movies, and the songs are the best songs, and those are the most beautiful women. And we like to fool ourselves into thinking that it's a democratic process, but it's not. The people who choose the Academy Awards for Best Picture are the people themselves who are eligible to win the award for Best Picture. It's a peer selection; it's not a People's Choice Award or anything. It's also a way to look at a historical overview of a corpus of media or images really, really quickly. If you wanted to watch every one of those movies, that's like a five-day journey. This way you see them all in an hour, basically.

So are you an Oscar enthusiast?

I'm interested in cinema, but I'm not really an Oscar buff. I think it's interesting how in every cultural medium we have in the United States we have some kind of weird ranking system to try and figure out what's the best. And so with movies, it sort of the Oscar, and "the Oscars" is an Academy. That's why the piece is called Academy: It's a group of people voting for themselves in a way. It's just an interesting way of looking at the way things have changed, and on a technical level, what you see is how cinema has accelerated. If you look at a movie like Casablanca and look at a movie like Chicago, they're basically the same length. But when you watch the one-minute compression of Casablanca, you can totally tell it's Casablanca; there are all these static long shots, people move very slowly, there's this theatrical acting style. Chicago is shot like a music video. The camera is constantly moving, there's all this cutting -- it's this huge, crazy blur. You can see how cinema has accelerated along with culture in a way. Which I think is sort of interesting.

The Academy is extremely protective of its name and legacy, and while yours isn't necessarily a pejorative representation, it's a representation that's essentially unauthorized. Has anybody approached you about this one?

No. You can see bits of the piece online; it's sort of a statistics exercise. I'm not really sampling the films; I'm taking the entire movie and averaging it into one minute. You can't reverse engineer the movie out of the piece. But I'd be interested in seeing what they think; it's not a biased view of the process. It's not like I made any choices. You can read into it what you want to read into it. You can watch it and say, "Oh, yeah, I remember that movie; I hated that movie! I loved that movie!" It's more about the people viewing it than the actual movies. It's kind of a good bar trivia piece.

It's like a postmodern Chuck Workman montage.

Exactly, exactly.

You have a doctorate in music composition, and that's where your primary work is done. Yet you have two titles at the Sundance Film Festival, which is a pretty rare accomplishment for anybody, let alone a full-time composer. What was your reaction when they wanted two projects?

Yeah, I was really excited. (Sundance programmer) Shari Frilot saw my show in New York in May and she called my gallerist. I was really, really excited. I think about those things all kind of musically; they have this kind of musical form to them a little bit that I sort of am interested in. But I do all sorts of stuff with video and multimedia and everything. I cover all the bases.

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