Julien offers a sensual feast of music, movement and beauty
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, in collaboration with the Atlanta College of Art, continues its ambitious series "Sound and Vision: New Films by Contemporary Artists," with two short works by British filmmaker Isaac Julien.
Described as "an expert at the erotics of vision" by The Guardian's Adrian Searle, Julien invests his work with a dreamy, narcotic quality as engrossing as any music video spiced with techno and mariachi music, slow-motion photography, dance and moody surroundings.
A director whose films often subvert stereotypical treatments of race and gay identity, Julien continues to explore these themes in two recent works screening in Atlanta, "The Long Road to Mazatlan" (1999) and "Three" (1999). Both films use beauty (achieved with gorgeous cinematography), location work and a harmonious mix of music and movement (inspired by Julien's own background in dance) to draw in the viewer, while also sustaining interest through Julien's aforementioned sensual, erotic atmosphere.
The unique sensuality of Julien's vision is established from the opening of "The Long Road to Mazatlan," as a creamy yellow snake winds it way across a white road in the film's iconically retro Western setting in San Antonio, Texas. Infused with Raising Arizona wackiness and the experimentation of Andy Warhol or Wim Wenders, "Mazatlan's" vivid blue skies, railroads and antiquated motels capitalize on the succulent, heated myth of the Old West and the erotic mystique of the cowboy, an icon Julien infuses with homosexual desire.
Rather than questioning the cowboy myth as hetero-repressive or limiting, Julien suggests this denizen of the Old and New West has an erotic component that crosses over questions of sexual orientation. "We're not always undone by stereotypes," Julien has noted, "in some ways they sustain us."
Most of the action in "Mazatlan" is reduced to a continual romantic paralysis and the frustrated desire in "just looking." Cast as a perpetual voyeur who can only imagine sexual coupling, a white-clad cowboy (choreographer Javier De Frutos, whose own claim to fame is often dancing naked) gazes through a window at the Ranch Motel, as his love object in black (Phillippe Riera) performs a Taxi Driver-esque "Are you looking at me?" gun-drawing routine in his bedroom mirror. Desire and reality clash mightily at such moments, as characters look through and into their own looking glasses for the fantasy they seek.
Julien embellishes his Western rhapsody with choreography that adds another layer of blocked romance to the proceedings as in a scene poolside where the lonesome cowboys writhe and jerk around each other's bodies but only hint at a sexual fulfillment, which is continually denied as the film progresses. Julien's use of slow-motion and reverse-motion creates a strange, jerky "dance" as one man bounds out of the swimming pool and another plunges back in, their bodies coming tantalizingly close to each other, but always keeping a distance.
Dance, both as an example of intimacy and of distance, is explored again in Julien's equally gorgeous "Three," where frustrated desire is expressed by characters who can often be heard speaking, though their lips don't move. "Three's" sepia-tinted elegance replaces "Mazatlan's" yawning blue skies and iconography of the retro West with the cool tones of the city, where three characters, a man (choreographer Ralph Lemon) and two women (choreographer Bebe Miller and British actress Cleo Sylvestre), are engaged in a romantic tango. More refined and controlled than "Mazatlan," "Three" shares enough motifs in common with the first film to give viewers of even this small sampling of films, an insight into this unique artist's hothouse vision.