Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Patty Chang & David Kelley: Flotsam Jetsam

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Patty Chang & David Kelley: Flotsam Jetsam

Article excerpt


Museum of Modern Art, New York

March 15 - September 28, 2014

This fall, the Museum of Modern Art loop-screened a 30-minute 2007 film in the lobby of its basement-level film theater and hung a series of color photographs in the lobby just above. These comprise Patty Chang and David Kelley's Flotsam Jetsam.


It's a breezy half hour, and I mean breezy as a high compliment. The film is entertaining and fun, not frivolous, and the thirty minutes feel like fifteen. To begin a list, there are three songs; a lo-budget film-in-the-making with a submarine-prop saddled aboard a working ship; an airline hostess welcoming passengers on the prow of a boat; dream recollections in a swimming pool; young commentators on land, on a boat, in a river; family squabbles; and a mysterious terrorist/military operation. All this is staged during a journey along a dreary stretch of the Yangtze River, near the controversial Three Gorges Dam. The sky is always gray and the water is always murky, even when accompanied by a sprinkling of the melody of "La Vie en Rose."


With all these goings-on, I felt compelled to categorize the film into a genre or style. Chang and Kelley compel us to infer sense from the narrative-just as they feel compelled to understand and make order of modern China. These three impulses produce just enough gravitas to balance the whimsy; I'll take them in order.

The purposeful, meandering narrative, seeming and teeming metaphor, documentary photography, and snatchy dialog demand a reckoning of Chang and Kelley's not-quite-sui generis style. There's something of Jean Vigo's social documentary, despite the violating of Vigo's caution that "conscious posing or acting cannot be tolerated. If the subject isn't taken unawares by the camera, one must surrender all claims to any 'documentary' value."1 (Kelley: "That's a burden of documentary-both the filmmaker and the subject are creating their own imaginary version of what is real. We took fragments of various actor's dreams and recomposed them.") And there's something of the Chris Marker of Sans Soleil ("Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?" asks Marker's narrator), but, again, so much of Flotsam Jetsam is planned, even scripted. That leaves surrealism: there's recounting of dreams and narrative non sequiturs, though FJ has no "automatic" photography. If we consider Buñuel's thought that "the real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself," we find that it's the dam more than FJ that transforms life itself.

FJ's baker's dozen of short stories/episodes ebb and flow as we navigate through the dam. Much of the imagery is obscure. Every few minutes there is another implication of a theme floating to the surface: reliable/ unreliable memory, environmental concerns, fantasies and facts of scientific progress, fantasies and facts of social progress, displacement, history, nostalgia. …

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