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Towards the end of Kahlil Joseph’s essayistic film Fly Paper (2017), on view at MOCA PDC, an orchestra of heavy, ambient, oceanic bass quiets as a disembodied female voice reads: “Memories must make due with their delirium, with their drift.” This phrase, excerpted from Chris Marker’s pioneering 1983 film Sans Soleil, punctuates a scene in which two men—one young, one old, and both shrouded in shadow—begin to drift towards each other as their bodies gradually fall into a synchronized series of choreographed movements. An abrupt cut to grainy color footage reveals a bespectacled man resting in a hospital bed, his head freshly sewn by a patchwork crown of silver staples. Elsewhere, young, resplendent black men and women converse and mingle in regal surroundings. A crowded subway train arrives at a Harlem station. A voice recites, “Madness protects, as fever does.”
A counterpart to MOCA Grand’s larger exhibition One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art, Fly Paper is paired with a sole painting by Farber, a large-scale tondo, entitled Marguerite Duras, Possibly (1981), that depicts a surrealist, birds-eye view of a meandering urban landscape-turned-artist’s- work-table, with trains and architectural elements interweaving with books, people, and paintings. In a literal sense (arguably exceedingly literal), the painting echoes the film’s own compositional structure as a fractious and hallucinogenic audiovisual collage— itself another nod to Marker’s Sans Soleil—in which disparate images superimpose a complex, multilayered soundscape. Oscillating from the breathy intimacy of quiet conversation, to the din and thrum of Harlem’s streets, to the deafening drumbeat of amplified music, Joseph’s film manages to compress discordant auditory sensations into a singular orchestral score. This feeds the feeling of being physically submerged within the film’s narration, as a fluid montage of textured visual and acoustic moments evoke both the poetic fog of memory and the twilight state of fever dreams.
Fly Paper borrows its Harlem setting from The Sweet Flypaper of Life, the 1955 literary collaboration between Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes that paired DeCarava’s attentive photographs of quotidian life in Harlem with Hughes’ fictive yet palpable insights into the Manhattan neighborhood and its African American inhabitants. As a lyrical, nomadic ode to present day Harlem—a ballad of black life, steeped in the architecture of the city—Joseph’s film similarly shepherds an intimate view of the neighborhood’s vernacular character. It also doubles as a metaphoric ode to black artistic excellence, marked by the appearance, in work and in body, of a distinguished roster of black artists, writers, and musicians.
In addition to text from Sans Soleil, the film appropriates slivers of narration from Hughes’ titular text, writings by Zora Neale Hurston, and text from Harlem is Nowhere, a memoir by the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. In the film, Rhodes-Pitts appears in her Harlem apartment, holding her child and gazing through a window as a gauzy, diaphanous curtain floats above them. The two seem unaware of the camera’s quiet gaze— a result of the film’s subtle diaristic undertones, which confer each face and façade with an aching familiarity. A second shot focuses on the book Black Theatre USA, a noted anthology of dramatic works by African American writers (including Hughes and Hurston), balancing in the foreground on her windowsill. Here, an intimate moment between mother and child is compounded with a domestic still-life of black literary achievement, suggesting a shared sense of tenderness and legacy.
By folding such an authentic moment of domestic intimacy into a strangely hypnagogic mosaic of filmmaking, Joseph ultimately points to the inherently performative nature of the medium itself. In this sense, his prominent placement of the title Black Theatre USA can be read as an allusion to the narrow ways in which American popular culture— historically written and transcribed by whiteness— expects blackness to perform for its gaze. Contextually, however, the book itself commands, and harkens back to, the same literary prowess ingrained in The Sweet Flypaper of Life: it infers the respective ways in which black creative excellence has been—and should continue to be—folded into the cultural canon.
Towards the end of the film’s digressive narrative stream, the score quiets again and bridges to shaky footage of a sun-soaked street, where a woman passerby meets our gaze and asks, “Is that a camera?,” to which the omnipresent filmmaker responds, “It’s a little tiny film camera, yeah.” This moment immediately and beautifully punctures the veil of the fever dream, and of the film’s own performance. As a work steeped in the intimate history of Harlem, as well as in the intricate potentialities of filmmaking itself, Fly Paper proposes the moving image as a living monument for The Sweet Flypaper of Life. This quotidian exchange serves, perhaps unwittingly, as one of the film’s most emblematic memorials to the ways in which Hughes’ original text transgresses formalities to capture something akin to a lived, collective truth.
The overarching framework of One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art attempts to echo this sentiment. While the inclusion of Farber’s painting appears wholly unnecessary, his 1962 thesis on termite art reads as prescient in this context. A termite is a communally-inclined creature, an omnivorous burrower capable of consuming and regurgitating vast islands of material. A termite artist, then, metaphorically “leaves nothing in [his] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity….and feels [his] way through walls of particularization.”1 Fly Paper embodies a thoroughly modernist exercise in the alchemy of experimental filmmaking: it rewinds and accelerates, bends and flattens time, and blurs the threshold between verifiable documentation and febrile mirage—in a sense consuming and reformulating film and its ability to hold time as malleable matter. Insomuch as the film’s nonlinear structure mimics the mechanics of memory, it also complicates the notion of memory as a one-sided, individuated realm of private recollection. Mirroring Farber’s indefatigable termite, Joseph dissolves memory, dreamscape, and urban consciousness into a singular filmic landscape, rendering the peculiar qualities of each in feverish relief while unmooring their perceptible boundaries.
Jessica Simmons is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work and writing navigates the haptic, oblique space that exists between the language of abstraction and the abstraction of language.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 15.