Thursday, March 18, 2010

Next Floor: Phoebe Greenberg's Moveable Feast

by Rita Bites
The lighting is low. The set is the interior of a large, ambiguous structure that may or may not be an abandoned warehouse. The costuming is dramatic, opulent. And the music is befittingly unnerving as eleven privileged guests feed on heaps of oily meats served by unusually accommodating waitstaff. And every few seconds, to the increased tempo of percussion, the walls rumble and patrons and feast fall through the floor of the "dining room" and land in the one beneath. The question begs to be asked: How many warehouse floors gave their lives in order for this film to be shot?

My immediate reaction when walking into the Hirshhorn museum's video viewing room halfway through Phoebe Greenbergs film short, Next Floor, was Great. Another low-budget, angst-filled college flick." I settled down to endure the rest of the twelve minute ride. But by the time I sat through it in full the first time, my knee quit jerking and I started cracking up in spite of myself. To a film that some bloggers/critics have dubbed "macabre" (Maurie Ailoff, or black commedy (Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post), I'm going to contribute the word "camp." While the film may not appear intentionally intellectual, its critique on contemporary society is done pretty hilariously. It's deliberately heavy-handed and obvious. You can't miss the point. And in case you wanted conformation of meaning, Greenberg says of the film, "The desire to illustrate 'gluttony' in the form of a bourgeois dinner party was compelling in our era of over-consumption," (Greenberg quote on the Sundance Film Festival webpage).

"Next Floor" was filmed through an abundantly dramatic lens that makes one recall an era of black and white film. The mood is surreal as waiters present platter after platter of increasingly bizarre fare: brains on the half-shell, full-sized taxiderm-ied beasts that have yet to have their fur removed and something that looks suspiciously like puppy fetuses. And all of it served on sumptuous beds of animal fur. The dinner guests, who are of a class and an era that "dress" for dinner, communicate with meaningful glances and raised eyebrows, all the while devouring everything placed before them (with the exception of a doleful, attenuated young woman who pushes the food around her plate with a fork). As the group feasts, tension accumulates until the room starts shaking and the floor begins to fall beneath them. While diners and food are airborne, the head waiter speaks the only words in the film, "Next floor," into a phone and waitstaff scurry to meet the tumbling group on (surprise) the next floor. As diners land, so the staff arrive with even more food and a number of fabric brushes to remove fallen building parts from their clothes. On one floor a stupefied quartet awaits the opportunity to entertain them. The film feels dreamlike in that all parties acknowledge (again, through facial expressions) that something unusual is going on, but then they continue their meal and service as if nothing unusual is going on. Clearly the building cannot sustain such glut.

While I have a soft spot for anything artistic or otherwise that attacks consumerism, the bump on my head from the sledgehammer with which the message was applied is still a little tender. Glut is quite literally grotesque in the film. The privileged class will devour anything, as becomes clear when the camera focuses in on the wheelchair-bound guest who must attain his quota of consumables with the help of a feeding tube. After the floor has collapsed a number of times (toward the end of the film) the diners become more aggressive, competing with each other in their food orgy. Their glances become glares as they double-fistedly stuff food in their mouths, faster and faster. Even the mournful waif partakes of the gorge while tears run steadily down her cheeks. The servers look on in deferential awe. Glut hurts everyone.

My biggest gripe with the film is not that Greenberg is critiquing the spectacle with such obviousness. In fact, in a fit of nostalgia it kind of makes me want to grab my umbrella and return every week with some friends so we can open our umbrellas, say, every time the building starts raining debris and dust on the sorry group. Neither am I bothered that Greenberg didn't really make the film (the idea was hers and she helped produce it, but Denis Villeneuve actually directed it). There is a question of genre, as in a helpfully headlined article, Greenberg teeters between art, film, Michael OSullivans raises the question as to whether Next Floor, is, in fact art or a film. (To which I would reply, Yes.). In the article O'Sullivan questions the films venue: should it be shown at the Hirshhorn (in which case it could be viewed as art) or in a theatre where a film is a film is a film. Here is how I know it is art and not cinema: I didnt actually pay a dime to see it. I think O'Sullivan brings up an interesting question, but not one I'm going to stay awake at night thinking about. My objection is that, while the costuming is aesthetically pleasing (to me) and it puts you in a certain 19th century period-piece kind of mood, it's of another era. And for most of us, another class. That makes it easy for people like me, of this era and my class (definitely not upper) to watch the film and agree with the general critique ABOUT THOSE OTHER PEOPLE. "Look at those gross, upper class consumers. " "We" aren't complicit in this and 99.9 percent of westerners, Americans in particular, should be. As long as we're being heavy handed, why not be obvious about who we're critiquing. And if it is Americans or 'The West," then we all have "some 'splainin" to do.

Okay, I really liked the film, thought it was funny and visually interesting and really well done in a whop you upside the head kind of way. It's just, how does a society critique itself when the mirror that's being held up to it isn't really reflecting it? If the bad guy is always someone else? To be fair it would be impossible to implicate everyone who ought to be implicated in a single film. And its artistic quality may have gone down a notch if the diners were all wearing acrylic sweaters, say, and kahki pants, ordering "ultimate trios" combinations from Applebees. For example. I have no qualms about Greenberg critiquing the rich if that's who she wants to critique. But what Greenberg says of "Next Floor," when talking about why she made the film is, "This medium and format was the most accurate expression to get the point across and to have impact on a large and diverse audience." So the large audience simultaneously receives its intended message and gets let off the hook. We watch the film and, for those of us who have one, pat ourselves on the back for our political consciences. Then we drive to our McMansions in our SUVs, stopping by Costco along the way. I'm not convinced that the point was effectively driven home to its intended audience.

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