Meg Knowles: Intimate Oddities
by Lizzie Finnegan
The first thing you notice about Meg Knowles’s videos is that they frequently feature her pets. The second thing you notice is that while the narratives may involve her aging dog’s trip to the acupuncturist or her cat’s slow demise from kidney disease, these short films take us on a journey far beyond the ostensible, mining these hyper-ordinary moments for the extraordinary strangeness we could discover in our own lives—if only we had Knowles’ eye. An artist of extraordinary perception and depth, Knowles catalogues her interior emotional landscape without lapsing into the maudlin or self-indulgent, the standard pitfalls of autobiographical documentary.
Retro-Spectacle, screening this Saturday at 8pm at Squeaky Wheel, spans almost 20 years of work from one of Western New York’s most talented video artists. Knowles, who has produced more than 40 short documentaries, is to video what Eudora Welty is to the short story: a master craftsman working with a streamlined, bracing precision to reveal the emotional minefields in the paths we unthinkingly travel every day.
In Christmas Past (2000), for example, Knowles’s deadpan voiceover relates anecdotes of family traumas, unfortunate gifts, and questionable parenting skills, all hilariously accompanied by Fellini-esque carnival music that moves the anecdotes into the territory of the hopelessly surreal. The litany of holiday travesties—which the filmmaker describes as “a diary gone awry”—is further satirized by the visual theme of stop-motion-animated ceramic crèche animals, dancing across the frame as a reminder of the fragility of childhood. The painful memories described are offset by a wry, sardonic humor teasing out the absurdities of what for many is also the most difficult time of year. The film becomes a meditation on the meaning of holidays, family, and the deep divide between commercialized visions of Christmas and the reality of troubled family relationships.
Knowles’ camera keeps us at a distance and puts barriers in between us and what we’re seeing—tree branches, snow banks—which gives a shocking punch to the close-ups she does use. She infuses the most innocuous of objects with a metaphorical power, rendering them alternately ominous or vulnerable. We begin to attribute to the crèche animals in Christmas Past—or to the bag of ice being pounded in Crush—the anxieties and associations that the films are evoking within us. The objects become imbued with an unnerving power.
Often Knowles uses images that do not illustrate the surface narrative; they complicate and comment on it, creating sharply unexpected resonances between sound and image, and between images. In Walk (2006), the premise is simple: over an extended period, she took one shot of herself every day, walking past the camera.
The matter-of-fact voice-over begins to tell one story, about the filmmaker’s weight loss program, but is drawn off into telling a different story, about her aging cat’s failing health. The increasingly hypnotic repetition of the filmmaker’s slow orbit across the frame, day by day, puts us under a narrative spell as we begin to make connections between the deceptively ordinary subjects and much larger, unexpected issues. Shot on 16-millimeter film, the film uses the specific elements of that medium— particularly the loud Bolex camera motor that dominates the soundscape—to create a sense of the inexorability of time moving forward, frame by frame.
Knowles weaves together the prerogatives of personal experience—memory, autobiography, direct observation of everyday life—with the constraints of a socially shared past, mining the gap between private and public space. Her work is both strikingly avant-garde and oddly homey, offering a rich sense of humor about contemporary social mores and cultural clichés, and herself as well. The formal precision of her composition, narrative structure, and pacing invokes the rigor and control of Dutch painters like Vermeer, whose work, says Knowles, “initially sparked [her] interest in depicting non-fiction subjects.” Her cool, iconic frame compositions lend a structural classicism to the images that subtly recasts the unruly subject matter—the messiness of family relationships, the mortality of those we love, the cultural politics of war, medicine, and gender—into a meticulous investigation of the familiar as though it were utterly foreign.
Knowles’s great strength lies in her uncanny ability to summon a deeply inchoate layer of experience out of the utterly pedestrian and render it in a clean, spare visual language that restores to us the power to experience our own lives anew.
Other highlights of the screening include Cure by Pill (1997), in which Knowles subverts and indicts a history of medical practices that are inseparable from cultural and gender politics, and the sure-fire crowd-pleaser Civilian Training, featuring performance artist Ron Emkhe in a parody of color-coded terror alerts and what they mean for the average citizen.blog comments powered by Disqus
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