Film, Still

Curator's Note

Criticism, in both its vernacular and academic forms, is a way of issuing a pronouncement. Even when the writing professes to be open-ended, there is something to the form of inscription that shuttles a film along its institutional trajectory, into the newspaper, the footnote, the archive. Consider the behavior of critics at major film festivals, who, before the standing ovation has concluded, vie to be the first to Tweet out their takes. It is a kind of territorial claim. Once mapped, a film will never again be unknown.

James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s Still Film (2023), which could itself be seen as a work of criticism, argues otherwise: that we have not resolved our relationship to moving images. The film takes two distinct forms. Visually, it presents a sequence of publicity stills from Hollywood films that were released during Wilkins’s childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. There are 140 images, which is the maximum capacity of a slide carousel. Also, like a slide carousel, the sequence moves forward and sometimes backward, and other times cycles entirely around. On the soundtrack, we hear a deposition, which is a legal process in which a witness is questioned to provide testimony. To be deposed assumes that a crime has taken place. But like Vertigo (1958), another film about the allure and deceit of images, the crime is never elaborated or resolved. No judgments are issued in depositions.

What we see is loosely connected to what we hear. Wilkins provides the voices for all four characters: the witness, the defense and prosecuting attorneys, and the recorder. It is like Kafka by way of Aaron Sorkin. They all speak with the same staccato density, with their questions and answers and asides tightly choreographed, like an ensemble tap dance. The voices are all but impossible to distinguish. The witness, moreover, is a version of Wilkins himself, a film viewer, one-time boom operator, and also a filmmaker. When he speaks, he is, in a way, speaking to himself, like the voices cloistered in John Malkovich’s head. The game of trying to identify who is speaking is mirrored in the stills, whose identifications are not shared until the end credits. Many will be familiar to anyone who has seen the big mainstream movies of the late analog era, which is to say, pretty much everyone.

What did the witness actually see? Wilkins’s longstanding interests in counterfeit and approximation (including, with 2012’s Public Hearing, a found script of a town hall debate over the expansion of a Wal-Mart into a larger Wal-Mart) are cleverly grafted on to the simulacrum of the publicity still, or what one of the characters calls “the memory of a memory.” There’s a structural analogy between the deposition, a proceeding that occurs outside of trial but nevertheless closely resembles it, and the work of the unit still photographer, whose publicity photos are similar to those of the actual film, but are recorded separately. Wilkins explores the stories of two such photographers: Linda R. Chen, who also typed up Pulp Fiction (1994), and John Bramley, who died while photographing the Disney flop Million Dollar Arm (2014) —“a movie so bad it killed a man,” quips one of the characters. Worse, for Wilkins, is the omission of a dedication to Bramley in the film’s credits, “like he wasn’t there.”  

Still Film is preoccupied with unit still photographers because their job is to “see, and not be seen.” This logic extends to viewers more generally, especially those who, like Wilkins, watched and rewatched movies as kids. Which is to say, again, pretty much everyone. For such viewers, there is no such thing as critical distance. The very language his characters use, their frames of reference, are all taken from this extended diegetic orbit—there’s no way of talking about it without standing deep within it. Our memories, even our present perceptions, mix with the movies we have seen, which are sometimes more vivid than our own lives, and are often confused with them. Call it nightmare cinephilia.

There’s no waking up from this condition, but for Wilkins, that’s not the point. Instead, he highlights “minimized people” like Chen and Bramley, because they remind us that the illusion is just that, an elaborately crafted, slick, sophisticated, and sometimes devious fantasy. They’re just as much a part of the movies as any actor—us too, for that matter, as viewers and critics. We’re the cause and the effect of the spell, defenders and prosecutors both, and for Wilkins that’s perfectly fine. Just don’t pretend you’re above any of it.

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