Isaac Julien
Long Road to Mazatlan

Towards a Critical Cinema: The Films of Isaac Julien
In the summer of 1983, a group of five young black artists and filmmakers (Isaac Julien, Martina Attile, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz, and Nadine-Marsh Edwards) came together in London to found the collective Sankofa. Through their work of the next decade, the group developed a strategy of politically committed collaboration that also sought to exceed the boundaries of mere politics and define the place of the black subject within the space of contemporary and historical representation in Europe. Sankofa's founding coincided with the militancy that followed the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the era of independence movements that swept through much of Africa. More precisely, the initiative of the group was to develop the topos of a critical cinema fluent in readings of Marxist cultural and political theory of class and race already in full flower in the crisp writings of Stuart Hall and others that could be attentive and responsive to new representations and narratives within the emergent context of postcolonial Britain. Out of this came a range of films which served notice that commitment to an avant-garde practice was as much a theater of the margins as of the center.

A thick wall separates us today from those crucial contestations that heralded, in the beginning of the 1980s, a new attitude in the U.S. and Britain a type of critical address on which matters of artistic agency were formulated. This separation is not premised on our understanding of the work of that earlier endeavor, based as it was on a number of discursive strategies, many of which called to our attention new ideas about diverse social subjects and cultural formations, but more importantly on the embeddedness of those subjects and formations in the disciplinary procedures of institutional practices with regard to exhibitions, museum collections, media representation, and public reception. Thus it seems that to appreciate fully the broad questions raised by these artistic enterprises and intellectual productions, how their spirit of rebellion against entrenched and hegemonic modes of contemporary culture called for an accounting of displaced narratives of immigrant communities (particularly as they coalesced in the two decades of Thatcherism, Reaganomics, the culture wars, and the wane of multiculturalism, in a haze of activities that privileged and instrumentalized postmodernist concepts), it might be worthwhile to return to the exemplary texts (visual and otherwise) of that period.

If the recollection of the passing of the moment mentioned above is not to be a mourning of its loss, then it must neither be fixed on the revisionary attributes of those enterprises nor on the obvious mechanisms of reading the historical text against the grain of its disciplinary identification. What is required is a return to the work itself, shorn of the baroque excess of what had been imprecisely named ontologically and epistemologically as its discourse. If discourse has a name in the matters of artistic practice, then its method must respond to the complexities of the work in question, thereby building for it a space to achieve the full extent of its ontology. Furthermore, if a productive analysis of the work is to take place, it must be reengaged on the terms of its text, first solicited by its essential facture and its own inner logic (conceptual, analytical, formal, etc.) and second by seeing the work in the ways it operates, contributes, and compels, over a long view, a full elaboration of its impact upon our culture, institutional and otherwise, and in the course of rendering an account of contemporary culture at large.

Much of the discussions to which I turn have occurred in the arena of film. Here we may think of artists and filmmakers like Larry Clark, Chris Marker, Marlon Riggs, Chantal Ackerman, Wim Wenders, John Akomfrah, and Julie Dash. The work of filmmaker, artist, and critic Isaac Julien is part of this group. Within this context of critical and experimental cinema, which does not abjure cinema's potential as a sensuous visual medium as well as being intellectually committed, Julien's films require the full interpretive powers of our critical reading and understanding.

Although he has won some of the most prestigious awards in cinema, including one at Cannes, Julien's films over the course of their public career have been consistently taxed by being positioned within a common view that renders them inadequately as gay or black. Even if he has indeed made certain issues of blackness and queerness, a critical element of his films' discourse, he does so only in the belief that they are subjects which demand serious filmic analysis, rather than as a way to pander to identity discourse. And if I speak of certain overdetermined readings of Julien's films, here it must be noted that I am not at all interested in the recuperative operation of setting the record straight. To do so would only serve to further occlude his complex practice by bidding for its mainstream recognition. I would rather emphasize the importance of Julien and his remarkable oeuvre in the tradition of filmmakers like Goddard, Glauber Rocha, and the exponents of third cinema. Such a linkage would make the necessary accommodation of his work between praxis and theory.

To understand Julien's complex work is also to open up a view into its engagement with the deep structures of certain intellectual traditions which link postcolonial theory to poststructuralism, film history to pyschoanalytic readings of race and difference, and feminist critique of masculinity to analysis of sexuality and queerness. All of these disciplines provide a rich terrain of possibilities for an imaginative cinematic practice that has been consistently inaugurated in all of Julien's work. But where does this leave the Julien whose work has often been swamped by discussions which hyperbolize its engagement with difference, race, and sexuality as symptoms rather than as critical readings consistent with the tropes of avant-garde cinema? That his films have been well received in the circuits of avant-garde and experimental cinema does nothing to alleviate the fact that his work is often confined strictly to the art film genre. Or, at worst, as an oppositional cinema.

While the attributes of Julien's films could be considered within these two principles, beginning with his documentary about the Brixton urban riots of the early 1980s in the film Territories (1983), which investigated the psychic and political trauma of the riots, his films do more than respond to that social condition in the quasi-objective, classic documentary format. In all of his films, no matter how objective, there is always the subjective "I," the speaking voice that is both the self and an eyewitness. In fact, to interrogate the basis of Julien's films is as much to open up to scrutiny the critical investments we bestow on black self-knowledge at large.

Therefore, Territories, Looking for Langston (1989), Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1997), and The Passion of Remembrance (1986; with Maureen Blackwood) exceed the documentary reflex. In all of these films the speaking voice is both dense and remote; temporality is both continuous and discontinuous, such that they are spatialized within the narrative tense of history as well as in the aftermath of their historical rereading. This is one of the qualities of films such as Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask and Looking for Langston, which examine the politics and intellectual lives of two giants of modern black letters.

The contrast between Langston Hughes and Frantz Fanon could not be more stark. Although they can both be seen as outsiders, Hughes is a member of the establishment and Fanon a radical intellectual firebrand whose incendiary writings became the bible of all third world revolutionaries. Both films are biographical reimaginings of their subjects as well as analyses of the broader historical frameworks that contain them. Thus, in a sense, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask and Looking for Langston become psychic portraits of their main protagonists as much as they are portraits of Harlem, the U.S., Martinique, France, and Algeria. The visual and conceptual power of Julien's films make of his work a highly lucid exemplar of intertextual cinema, mixing the genres of documentary essay, montage, the archive, film noir, restaged sequences, and even phantasmic reimaginings.

Looking for Langston, for example, shows Julien's most complex and metaphorical powers. The chiaroscuro and beauty of the black-and-white film is both enigmatic and romantic. The film alternates between an absurd sense of narrative and realism, or between documentary and enactment; it is almost Passoliniesque in its treatment of light, mood, and texture. In this way the film imagines cinema as the space for interpretation and exegesis as well as representation and narration. One way of describing Julien's approach is to consider it as intersubjective and transtextual. Context is always a means, a way to begin, the spur to investigation, a filmic speculum for probing and looking into, beneath, and through a subject's transparency, but it is never an end in itself. Thus, Looking for Langston shows us the duality of black subjectivity that is as much about celebration as repression, strength as melancholia, confidence as insecurity, and reverie as sorrow. Langston Hughes, the poet of the Harlem Renaissance, is tenderly rendered as a man of contradictions whose public persona is carefully crafted to submerge or deny his "darker" private side, "a lover of bodies beneath rough cloth," as Federico Garcia Lorca sang about another queer American poet, Walt Whitman. In many ways, Looking for Langston is a paean to black loss and love, an homage to one of the most complex characters of American letters. Likewise, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask shows us a flawed revolutionary intellectual and hero; one who was capable of freeing the most deep-seated complexes in his patients but full of personal contradictions as well. Julien's intellectual biographies of Fanon and Hughes are not polemics, however, but highly original transformations of his complex subjects into fascinating cinema with serious political dimension. This politicality, an asset more than a burden, is often missed in the serious critiques of Julien's work.

In this sense, Territories could be seen as a much more political film. It puts Julien in the critical role of an engaged, intellectual activist. The subject is not something to hunt and analyze from a distance; it is levered into clarity using the fulcrum of the filmmaker's contemporary milieu. It could be said that what tears at the taut, tremulous membrane of the film is the manner in which Julien opens up a space for self-reflexivity; here otherness has vanished - the analysand and analyst are one and the same, fixed in the helotry of the time. If Territories is a solemn and tough meditation on the angst and disappointment of urban black immigrants under the hectoring gaze of Thatcherite Britain, it is not simply positioned in an apocalyptic dystopia. The polar register of the film could be read in its potential to enact desire, subject formation, jouissance, and communal pleasure, as seen through the means of the Nottinghill carnival, as an expression of a kind of political and cultural practice. Territories exemplifies the political attitude at the core of Julien's praxis. Consistently tough, erudite, and eloquent, it mixes high theory with a wide-awake candor and perceptiveness. It mines the contradictions of its subject while maintaining an acute ambivalence towards it through self-reflexivity.

Jouissance, ambivalence, communal pleasure, and self-reflexivity, as well as stunning cinematic beauty, are the elements of Julien's most commercial work to date, Young Soul Rebels (1991). This seminal cult film explored the complex multiracial pop culture and music scene of 1980s London. Here and in a number of other films, Julien has attempted, through a career of considered and critical advocacy, a kind of cinema that surpasses the flaccid, pretentious, and boring fare of Hollywood.

If Isaac Julien's work on film, including that with Sankofa, has from the outset been about "a questioning cinema," it has in the same breath been about a pleasurable cinema. In fact it could be said that despite their overt politicality, much of his films work on the double trope of visual and critical pleasure. These strategies allow the viewer to perceive and enter the films' onto logical space. This in turn permits a sense of critical identification with avant-garde cinema that offers marginality its own instrumental iconography, which in obvious ways aims to overthrow the regimes of spectatorial prejudices often imposed by dominant cinema. Yet it can be allowed that the potential for experimental cinema today is quite uncertain, at least in the old circuits of its distribution. Today much that is experimental or carries the potential for extending the language of film happens not in movie theaters but in the context of the art gallery. The range of possibilities for what may be done with the moving image could be seen as reaching its apotheosis in the engagement of the form by artists, at least since the days of structuralist films and videotapes made by artists.

Not long ago I reencountered the early film work of Richard Serra, Peter Campus, Michael Snow, Robert Morris, and Bruce Nauman. I could not help thinking how fresh the initial impulse that inspired their excursion into film was and how germane to today's contemporary art environment. Within this new semantic recovery, Julien has embarked on a different investigation of the moving image in the museum and gallery space. Over the course of the last five years his investigations have yielded three film installations: Trussed (1996), Three (1998/99), and the most recent, Long Road to Mazatlan (1999). All three films carry on Julien's meditation on sexuality and gender. Trussed, a double film projection first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, is the most overtly homoerotic in content. Three, a much more complex film, is set within the domain of a love triangle, with dance choreography by Bebe Miller and Ralph Lemon. Its spatial and temporal logic (first incarnated as a sculptural proposition in the first room of the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, then doubling, though not perfectly mirroring its excerpted content in the full film in the adjacent room) renders cinema as a phenomenological object. While the three-part back-projected images, contained in a sculptural cabinet, emphasize the minimalist orientation of black-and-white film, the projection calls to mind film's potential in terms of duration. Looping the images may present an illusion of seamlessness, but their endless repetition destroys temporality, cuing us back to the spatial disposition of the gallery as an environment in which the work is fully elaborated.

In Long Road to Mazatlan, a three-screen projection with some of the most beautiful and sensual images I have seen in a long time, Julien seeks to capture the essence of a paradox: the attributes of machismo and blatant eroticism, the unlimited potential of the frontier, and the claustrophobia of border culture. The camerawork is architectonic and masterful, making use of the sculptural potential of cinematic space in quasi-three-dimensional shots; the image is speeded and slowed, doubled into itself, fragmented and then juxtaposed with a portion of itself, or collated as a whole on the three screens. This is achieved by the effortless edit, which is wonderfully synchronized. In the video, shot in San Antonio, we make pit stops at icons of the American wilderness: the rattlesnake farm, a cattle auction, the train whistling through town, and the obligatory Mariachi band, which sings a heart-wrenching ballad, reminding us that Texas, the setting of the film, had been both lost and won.

The film also tours the space of popular American cinema and contemporary art through a series of lighthearted citations. A mimic of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver turns into an ironic mockery of Scottish artist Douglas Gordon's appropriation of the selfsame image; there is also a David Hockneyesque swimming pool scene in which beautifully contoured naked male figures swim, counterposed with a balletic pas des deux between the two male protagonists. In this imponderable tale of seduction and the search for sexual release in low places, Julien also incorporates humor, the myth and romance of the American Southwest, its frontier culture, cowboys, and homoeroticism. The film, as in much of his other work, is also about looking and the incommensurable nature of the gaze and desire.

An entirely new tenor may be detected in this series of films for gallery projection. If there's a lightness of spirit that makes them seem at times less self-referential, their incipient ambiguity compels us back to the work itself. But something else entirely could be deduced in the discourse of the work; if not set apart from Julien's prior concerns, it at least seeks to separate them from the infernal politics of race and sexuality, difference and ideology. The conceptual drive for filmic reflexivity, detached from the mindless repetition of the loop, remains throughout, and still imperative here is a cinema that embraces the liberating ethic of visual pleasure.

Okwui Enwezor
February 2000
New York, NY

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