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Leslie Thornton

August 8, 2006

Adynata, 1983

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Adynata is a figure of speech, a form of hyperbole that has been exaggerated to the point of impossibility. Similarly, Leslie Thornton's seminal film, Adynata is also a densely assembled rhetoric: an exposition into the social representations of a perpetuated, exoticized otherness - an alien culture, an irretrievable past, an impenetrable psyche - a conjured idealization collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity and irreconcilable contradiction. A wispy, idyllic shot of a futuristic, opalescent, gently contoured botanical garden greenhouse in New York City sets the otherworldly tone for Thornton's exposition into the culturally amorphous forms of representation as the images of exotic flora (in its sumptuous foliage and forbidding thorns) are juxtaposed against a nineteenth century photograph of an upper class Asian couple formally posed in traditional costume, and set to the nostalgic sounds of scratchy, early twentieth century phonograph records. From this implicit evocation of an intangibly fragile, elusive, intranscendable alterity (an alienness that is reinforced by the idiosyncratic, animated sequence depicting an extraterrestrial view of a spinning Earth), Thornton begins to systematically dismantle the very mechanisms of this subconscious process of rarefaction and exoticism through the practical - and consequently, de-romanticized - recontextualization of the images themselves.

A western woman (Thornton), whose voice appropriately remains unheard, is seen in the process of donning the elaborate period clothing in the style of the woman in the photograph, and in the process, reveals the reductive, vulgar, and grotesque nature of ethnic sameness, caricature, and desexualization that underlies this act of superficial imitation. The shallowness of the masquerade is further underscored by the reconstructed opacity of Thornton's figuration mimicking the photographed woman's enigmatic expression, as any traces of her thoughts and motivations are obscured - and consequently, suppressed - beneath the heavy make-up and baroque ornamentation of the costume. Rather than presenting the seductive image of exotic fascination, what emerges in these self-contradicting images is a figurative masquerade: an erasure of identity enabled by the idealization of the subject behind the images, in the submissiveness and artifice of its projected illusion. This deconstruction of idealized images is also illustrated through the recurring shot of a pair of women's shoes, shaped in the impossibly narrow style of the period, as the footwear is whimsically integrated into images that reveal implicit domesticity (in the act of embroidered sewing) and objectification (in the collage of oriental paraphernalia). Initially juxtaposed against sumptuous, tropical images of bird of paradise flowers at the botanical garden, the footwear is then placed in the context of photographs and illustrative sketches from a scientific journal depicting the process of oriental foot binding to illustrate the implicit violence and inhumanity intrinsic in this cultivated ideal of exotic artificiality.

Moreover, innate in Thornton's investigation is the insidious nature of images, deployed equally as tools of information as they are of misinformation, illustration and deception, illumination and ignorance. In presenting the contradictions intrinsic in the perception of images, Adynata diverges from the immediate theme of orientalism and alterity towards a broader examination on the nature of human imagination, where the very process itself becomes an engaged, interpretive act of complicity towards the perpetuation of the perception of otherness. It is this multiplicity of meaning that is inevitably captured in the superimposed image of a two-headed earthenware jug that is set against the formal portrait of the Asian couple that concludes the film - an illustration, not only of the ephemeral irreconcilability of images, but also of the unresolved layers of significance that exist beneath the implicated act of seeing.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 08, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Leslie Thornton

April 3, 2006

There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving, 1988

unseencloud.gifWhen avant-garde filmmaker Leslie Thornton created There Was an Unseen Cloud Moving, Islamic culture was not yet defined by antiseptic, then turbulent images of unresolved Gulf Wars (or conveniently stigmatized as the face of terrorism) but rather, by the evocation of alien landscapes, life-altering adventures, mysticism, isolative awakening, and passionate rendezvous of films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, and Pepe le Moko. It is these ephemeral notions of an exoticized otherness, fugue, and meditative search for enlightenment that undoubtedly also propelled the spirit of the film's appropriately amorphous heroine and nineteenth century adventurer, Isabelle Wilhemina Eberhardt (who, in the film is portrayed by several actresses). Dubbed "Le Bonne Nomade" and "L'Amazone du Sable", Eberhardt was the well-educated, illegitimate daughter of a Russian aristocratic mother, Nathalie Moerder and her children's tutor, an anarchist, bohemian, and ex-Orthodox priest and Moslem convert named Alexandre Trophimovsky. Seeking in part to escape a turbulent home life, Eberhardt traveled to Algeria at the age of 20 on a quixotic quest for spiritual enlightenment where, after the untimely death of her mother, she continued to live in North Africa (due in part by her denial of inheritance as a result of her illegitimacy) as a Moslem man in order to move freely within Arabic tribes in Tunisia and Algeria, and in the process, author a series of articles and journals that collectively would be described as "one of the strangest human documents a woman has given to the world."

Thornton creates a playful, tactile, and insightful experimental biography of the iconoclastic heroine through an impressionistic collage of found film, archival photographs, mixed media (film and video) reenactments, and textured annotations that serve as an appropriately abstract yet incisive and instinctually cohesive representation of Eberhardt's equally strange and unorthodox, yet remarkable life. In one episode, the seeming alienness of the desert landscape is juxtaposed against archival footage of the lunar landing in order to subvert not only the notions of alterity, space, and time, but also to introduce the themes of terrestriality and immanence, as Eberhardt figuratively sheds her gender, culture, and identity by assuming the guise of a Moslem man named Si Mahmoud Essadi and, in essence, becomes extraterrestrial in her liberation from the body to become a figurative wandering spirit completely assimilated into the fibers of Arabic society, able to penetrate the secret brotherhoods of Islamic culture (such as the Sufi brotherhood of Qadriya) that a European woman could not. Moreover, through the fragmented superposition of grainy, defocused, concealed, high contrasted, or otherwise obscured images throughout the film, Thornton reflects not only Eberhardt's existential state of acorporeality and elusive search for spiritual enlightenment, but also her cultural immersion within the haze of intoxicating, escapist rituals - and false transcendence - of alcohol consumption, drug use, and liberated sexuality. This recurring image of immersion would also subsequently underscore the poetic irony of Eberhardt's untimely death in 1904 from a literal immersion - the fatal, flash flooding of the village of Aïn Sefra where Eberhardt had reunited with her husband, an Algerian officer named Slimane Ehnni, after a long separation. Ending with this tragic evocation of the harshness and atemporality of landscape, Eberhardt's chronicle of cultural immersion in Islamic society becomes an equally inscrutable human document that, like the unseen cloud cast by a significant, yet little understood parallel civilization - remains visible, but unregistered, in the periphery of the occidental gaze.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Leslie Thornton