Amy Granat’s interest in making a silent film version of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky seems to have been prompted by the visual atmosphere against which the three main characters’ turbulent psychologies commingle. The arid settings described in The Sheltering Sky inspired Granat to film her work in the Western U.S., in locations that evoke an air of desolation. Looped projections of Granat’s film, which borrows Bowles’s title, were the centerpiece of her recent exhibition.
Bowles’snovelis a story about love, longing and loss set in the sands and souks of North Africa, but the intentionally languorous pacing of Granat’s telling of the narrative makes it difficult to follow. Her version condenses the plot, highlighting certain moments of action. Port and Kit Moresby, the couple at the center of the action, who are based on Paul and Jane Bowles, leave New York on a long journey in an attempt to repair a marital rift. Tunner, a friend of the couple and the third wheel on their journey, is a loyal companion, an annoyance and, having fallen for Kit, a champagne-swilling seducer. Shortly before Port dies of typhoid, well ahead of the story’s fractured end, the married couple’s love is rekindled.
The main gallery contained two looped projections of Granat’s film (one lagging a few minutes behind the other), a video collage and stacked monitors displaying character studies, each a montage of footage specific to Port, Kit or Tunner. Colors are washed out at times by over-exposure of the film. Light spills, which normally occur at the end of 16mm film reels, puncture Granat’s sun-faded work with explosive luminous streaks.
Granat was careful to cast people with attractive, gamine features for the parts of Port and Kit (Paul and Jane Bowles, perhaps it is worth noting, were both bisexual). New York-based painter Jacob Kassay (Port) and dancer Flora Weigmann (Kit) seem to be mirror images of each other. Tunner is played by Drew Heitzler, with whom Granat collaborated on a film, shown at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, that mixes Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, present-day unrequited love and a motorcycle. Granat reserves the role of a prostitute that Port sleeps with for her own dramatic cameo.
The show also included Spills and Shadows #1-5 (2010), a corner installation of five abstract photograms, and Sun Quilt (2010), a large patchwork of nine similar photograms, which were made during the filming ofGranat’s piece. Their stunning, staring-at-the-sun retinal effects are woven into the visual narrative of The Sheltering Sky.
Photo: View of Amy Granat’s exhibition, showing (left) Character Study—Flora, 13⁄4-minute loop, and (right) S. Sky (V-2), 541⁄2-minute loop, both 2010, video; at the Kitchen.
Eschewing direct film manipulation for in-camera editing, Amy Granat’s “The Sheltering Sky” shares a proclivity for literary narrative with her Drew Heitzler collaboration T.S.O.Y.W. (2007). Combining her manipulation of aperture, lighting, and scene length with a loose narrative of American melancholia, T.S.O.Y.W. documented the protagonist Werther (from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther) as he set off on a motorcycle road trip to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Joshua Tree National Park. The film concluded with Werther disappearing into the distance; to artist Trinie Dalton, it was a “romanticized death” in the isolated desert landscape.
“The Sheltering Sky” inhabits an analogous psychic terrain, and departs from Paul Bowles’s 1949 novel of the same name. The installation chronicles a married couple and their friend as they wander the Saharan region of a politically destabilized North Africa. Eroded by the desert’s foreign, desolate landscape, their civil relationships turn destructive as fidelity and friendship give way to sexual betrayal and sickness.
Granat filmed a group of friends and colleagues to create an installation of four videos and three digital projections in The Kitchen’s front gallery, and six photograms and a video triptych in the back. Culled from over eight hours of 16-mm film, the videos are divested of dialog, script, and musical accompaniment, replacing much of the novel’s literary narrative for one limited by 16-mm in-camera effects: superimposition, differing film stocks, shooting into the sun and other lighting effects and editing. The photograms and video triptych in The Kitchen’s back galleries point to a similar medium-specificity. The video triptych Prostitute redo (at Matt’s) recycles damaged film from “The Sheltering Sky,” while each of the photographs layer 16-mm film stock and transparencies to affect indexical, site-specific abstractions of criss-crossing light and shadow.
With footage of blowing sand, blurry outlines of sleeping figures, and an endless, flat landscape punctuated by reed-like telephone poles, the single-channel video S. Sky (V-2) (all videos, 2010) is projected simultaneously on either end of The Kitchen’s front gallery (with a one and a half minute delay). Projected on a third wall, Character Study-Flora features a woman in bed, talking, drinking, reading, and engaging in other mostly solitary activities. Four television monitors, stacked side-by-side several feet into the gallery, rotate sequences from Character Study-Jake and Character Study-Drew. Grainy footage of small groups of men talking and walking, offset against slow-moving clouds and a wide sky, are shown in each screen. Weighted by non-action, non-sites, and a landscape of existential subjection, the vignettes of intimate undoing share with T.S.O.Y.W. a contemporary wartime metaphor.
In a statement for her first solo exhibition of scratched and chemical-bathed film, Granat wrote that her “films are movies made…from the attack and scratch of their own emulsion. In nature we see it all around us. At the same time something is being created, something is being destroyed.” Over- and under-exposed, marked by flashes of white light, and erupting in bursts of unnatural color, the filmic manipulations in “The Sheltering Sky” render Granat’s footage of abject landscapes and social scenarios antique, aged, and time-worn-a nostalgic conceit illustrative of Leo Bersani’s timeless dictum that evil is not “projected on an alien other, but rather…an intractable murderousness constitutive of the human itself.”