Monday, February 8, 2010

A Failed Entertainment

This morning I ventured up, up, up Manhattan to Columbia University's LeRoy Neiman Gallery where several of James O. Incandenza's short films were playing on loop in a lonely room. The video tapes ran simultaneously in a tower of 26 VCRs, the chords of which all led to a television and a door knob. To change the channel and switch to another video, you could turn the knob with a satisfying click. If you turned through the channels quickly so that a half second of a various small flames from Various Small Flames filled the screen, followed by a flash of Too Much Fun's failed post-conceptual standup routine, followed by the snowy revelry of Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators--Escatong, followed by a cracked and bewildered brick from The American Century As Seen Through A Brick--the effect was schizophrenic. And if you just sat very seriously and stared through each video, swallowing each image whole before daring to turn the knob, well then the experience became alternately eerie and meditative. Which is to say, I think that old eccentric, that filmmaker and tennis guru and scientist and headmaster and dad, Incandenza, would have been proud or at least pleased, though he may not show it. And though I really don't know, I think David Foster Wallace--author of Infinite Jest and father of all its characters including the madstork himself, Incandenza--would have liked this Columbia film project too. It seems in line with something the book was doing; indeed, A Failed Entertainment: Selections from the Filmography of James O. Incandenza contributes, to my mind, to one of the most exceptional aspects of Infinite Jest and DFW.

The book gives us a world complete, a gift DFW manages through various exercises of genius and with no shortage of love. Here are two of the things that DFW does...or really, one thing that gives birth to another. He gives us a ton of information (those of you who haven't read Infinite Jest probably have still heard of its hundreds of endnotes and its 1079 pages) that extends outward into the book's hypothetical universe. To some (very foolish people) all this information, much of it descriptive and non-narrative, appears excessive, or worse, indulgent. But DFW's 25 page charge through the mechanics of a favored school-yard game, or his tireless medical and colloquial etymologies, or a methodical description of carpet, or an endnote correction to a character's language or ideas--all of this builds a universe that breaks free of literary limitations to mirror the structures of reality.

Because with each breath our existence initiates a million points of contact with a zillion objects and ideas and emotions and people and microscopic matter! So that to glimpse something of the world is to step back from the narrative we've created for the moment, or for the day, or for a lifetime and see the overwhelming web of stories that surround us--the story of this green blanket over my legs, and the idea of growing nails as an act of willpower, and the picture of my mom and what her 80s perm was all about anyway--and when we see so many of these histories rise up around us, the idea of a linear story with narrative boundaries and a guiding principle of pertinence, well this loses all meaning. So but Infinite Jest then, finds something like the fabric of the universe in all its endless referencing and acronyms and characters and objects and spaces. There's a human thought behind every building, an evolution behind every gesture. The ideas and facts in the book branch in every direction, circling back on themselves and then taking a new path. The whole project is rhizomatic, not arboreal, and in the curious nature and quantity of its content, is convincing such that the reader unwittingly becomes confident of facts left unsaid, people unmentioned, and ideas untouched. And it's totally fucking incredible. Like taking all the world in a breath. And yet DFW locates the source of this unbridled efflorescence, always, in the human souls that most concern him, so that in fact, we are blessed with a plot to boot. But, I stray.

So for me, James O. Incandenza's filmography was always more than a list of phony films in the endnotes of Infinite Jest--those films already existed for me in some sense. Because everything the book touches and, like I said, even some things it doesn't, are called into existence. Which is why it was so awesome when those good kids at Columbia decided to put together this show and bring these films into another dimension. Among others, Tim Lawless' adaption of Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony and its dance of steel and china and liquid is certainly something to celebrate and Brendan Harman's Cage presents a stunning collage, but this is almost beside the point. Their final beauty is their position in the universe; Here lies another tangled, winding branch extending from Infinite Jest, this one finding its bloom in a dark room way uptown.


Ryland Walker Knight said...

Way to brim!

S.E. said...

Hello Martha,

I'm glad you were able to visit the exhibition. You might be interested to hear that A Failed Entertainment will be presented again in the Spring of 2011. We have put out an open call for film/video submissions. Information is available at

All the best,

martha said...

Awesome! Thanks for the heads up, Sam!