Museum of Loneliness presents: Make Mine a Double

Acclaimed filmmaker and writer Chris Petit has curated a very special season of double bills for Curzon Home Cinema, as part of the Museum of Loneliness project

Introduction by Chris Petit

The Museum of Loneliness (MoL) was founded a couple of years ago as a non-institution dedicated to working in the gaps, and positioned at the opposite end of dot com. No website, no facebook, no twitter, MoL is essentially a parasite working through other bodies. It is not particularly lonely either, in case you were wondering. The loneliness refers to its founding observation that modern life’s primary relationship is no longer human but with the screen - actual and psychological - making everywhere connected and unconnected, lonely and not lonely at the same time.

When the digital revolution exploded the image bank, it placed us in a state of what could be called post-cinema. Cinema, like popular music, used to be something to be kept up with but everything has fragmented and flattened out, leaving it both more accessible than ever and at the same time - given the impossible, proliferating backlog - unknowable. Hence the fashion for specialisation and the growing prominence of the curator: those experts and brokers of taste, which remains the misguided be-all and end-all.

On the one hand, there is the often-noted shortening attention span, which leads to visual sampling. On the other, there is a contrary impulse, led by the art world, for marathons, into which cinema is coerced, the most obvious recent example being Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which created a twenty-four hour event from cutting in sequence excerpts from hundreds of different movies telling the time. The exercise was both literal (making film time coincide with real time) and random, with no ostensible aesthetic decision behind the choices, only a mechanical one. The most interesting aspect of The Clock was how the material became liberated from the tyranny of narrative to offer its own forms of discovery, became liberated from the way in which we traditionally view films, and how critics tell us to view them, as a story about a man or woman who, and whether it’s any good or not. 

Make Mine a Double

In relation to post-cinema, the MoL has asked a series of questions, the primary one being whether something has to be any good or not for it to be interesting. How far does critical orthodoxy get us? Why do critics more or less all say the same thing? Do we watch films in the same way we used to? Do we even watch films in the same way among ourselves? Once in the cinema a young woman’s mobile went off and she said she couldn’t talk because of where she was. Not bad actually, she said, and went on to relate what the film was about, to the hilarity of the audience because her account bore almost no resemblance to what was being watched. Yet after the call everything went flat, as it dawned on us that her interpretation had made the film sound enviably enjoyable compared to what we were watching.

The MoL avoids any notion of a critical excellence or best of, that same old consensus that gets us from Stagecoach to Citizen Kane to Vertigo, and it has consequently dedicated itself to the anti-pantheon. This is what Iain Sinclair, a MoL collaborator, has written about it: “The MoL operation is like a detective agency for erasing cultural memory: reverse archeology. Freelance curators replace the private eyes of film noir myth. Replace artists. A pointless accumulation of lists, documents, deleted DVDs, deservedly lost books: the anti-pantheon where the fault lines of history are revealed.”

Now the image bank has exploded we perhaps need to learn to look at images in different ways, no longer a story about a man or woman who did or didn’t. 

Make Mine a Double

Presented with Curzon Home Cinema's request to curate a season of films, the MoL decided to select on two criteria. To omit films already known to it (although there are exceptions), thus making this a blank-sheet exercise rather than one of conventional taste (superb, sublime, stunning, five stars, double thumbs-up). While the MoL operates on the principle that very little generally is really good, it accepts that nearly everything can be viewed as at least interesting, in a Warhol sense, even when boring. (This is slightly disingenuous; you have to know what films to avoid.) Second, the films should not be presented as a reflection of personal or institutional taste, in the way most curating is. Quite the contrary, the MoL considers it important to include films it doesn’t like, based on an old observation found in a lost file: “the desire to see films again hated at the time”.

As such, the MoL is more interested in an anthropology of cinema than aesthetics. It also believes that the modish or popular is not necessarily the best retrospective indicator. If anything, the MoL disagrees about everything getting dumbed-down: most films now seem not dumb enough but endlessly smart, even when pretending otherwise, which makes condescension a common feature. Of the films watched for this programme none has been stupid in the way that one might say in admiration of Gidget Goes Hawaiian that it was really stupid (and unconsciously as weird as anything by J.G. Ballard).

The MoL also believes that films are more interesting for not being viewed in isolation and being paired, for rhyming or clashing reasons, even if it’s only an art movie colliding with a genre picture, so an etiolated film such as The Left-Handed Woman, whose suburban stiffness and repression is its poetic point, becomes more not less interesting when crossed with a full-blooded Mexican cannibal movie. So, the MoL proposes 35 double bills, with a twist: a knock-on effect is created by the second film in any double bill becoming the first in the next, thus allowing any one film to be viewed in connection with two others. What emerges is a different kind of cinema topography, more like a walk through a variable landscape than the usual way of viewing, giving a run of over thirty films that wouldn’t otherwise be linked. Some pairings are obvious; some not. Tabu and Savage Grace share people who discover actions have consequences when they thought they wouldn’t, one in a colonial context, the other Oedipal, both featuring inherent decadence. Tyson and Requiem for a Dream share the same technical device of split-screen. Tyson then moves on to pair with Exit Through the Gift Shop as contrasting essays in physical presence and absence. The link between Exit and Catfish is pretty obvious, and so on until the last film, Tabu again, which takes you back to the beginning.

Make Mine a Double

As a way of viewing, the experience in itself becomes interesting, thinking about and seeing how films do or do not relate, instead of the usual thing of is this any good or not? What also emerged as a surprise is the realisation that there may be as little as two templates: cinema of reduction and cinema of possibility. Few films are neutral. This method also makes you watch a lot of films you wouldn’t normally see (and it didn’t feel like a waste of time afterwards). In fact, it may well be interesting to watch all the selections, in order, in the same way you work through a boxed set.

Another discovery, and a further surprise: the smaller and more portable the image, the more intimate it becomes. So cinema, which always used to be about size and that shared thing and the alchemy of projection, actually adapts rather well to solitary experience and digital miniaturisation. It becomes fragile in a different way from the old one of light projected through darkened space. 

Chris Petit
5 March 2013

More about the Museum of Loneliness project

On Thursday 2 May, Whitechapel Gallery and Test Centre present a special event for the launch of Chris Petit's 'Museum of Loneliness' album. The evening will feature a rare screening of the film Asylum (2000), appearances from Petit and Iain Sinclair, and playback of the album. Click here for more information.

Listen below an extract from 'Museum of Loneliness', Chris Petit's 12" album of specially-recorded readings from the novels 'Robinson' (1993), 'The Hard Shoulder' (2001), 'The Passenger' (2006) and other recent projects backed by field recordings and soundtracks from his films Asylum (2000) and Content (2010).

Watch this space for a special competition and an an extract from 'The Museum of Loneliness and the anti-pantheon', the article written by Chris Petit for Sight & Sound.

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