Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

I guess it depends on how you define “successful…”

Two movies for me today, three for Lisa. I joined her for How to Start Your Own Country and a live performance of Tagfish, part of the “Expanding Documentary” section of the festival.

At the risk of getting into some big words here, there are a lot of semiotics at play when you try to talk about the performance inherent in a production, live or recorded. I will turn for aid to a paraphrased, unnamed, and not shown French diplomat, who is referenced in How to Start Your Own Country. In regard to the potential number (and potential explosion of numbers) of micronations, he dismissively says that he doesn’t want to have to deal with a bunch of “silly little countries.”

I could get lost in the micromeanings of individual self-presentations, but I think in a larger scope a work of art of this sort is delivering a set of meanings to us. How we interpret all of those micromeanings, their interplay, and how we layer on our own experience and cultural knowledge is what determines whether or not a movie or a book “works for us.”

How to Start Your Own Country illustrates a couple of micronations (Sealand, North Dumpling Island, Hutt River Province, Seborga) and shows interviews with various diplomats and political scientists, all of whom discuss potential definitions of What a Country Is. What they (or Shapiro, the filmmaker) dance around but never articulate precisely is that existing countries (and through them, their clubs: the UN, the IMF, World Bank, EU, etc.) have a vested interest in stability. Stability is safe, after all, and helps to insure that existing countries (and perhaps existing power dynamics between countries) will also remain stable.

So it is, I think, with evaluation of art, even if accidentally. The criteria by which I judge, evaluate, and criticize a work of art should be flexible, allowing each piece to succeed or fail on its own terms – as opposed to succeeding or failing on mine. But isn’t easy to fall into patterns of my own, and come back to familiar answers? Classical storytelling (whether “documentary” or “narrative”) often relies on the Aristotelian 5 steps: first, admit you’ve got a problem exposition; followed by conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. It’s simple, tried and true. Aristotle didn’t even invent the rule, so you know he didn’t have a dog in that fight, right? Right. So you know that’s the best way.

Or at least the simplest, most straightforward way.

The truth is, as far as I can tell, that every story wants to be told in a different way. Maybe a percentage far north of 50 want to be told that via Aristotle’s prescription. Sometimes, though, a little bit of non-linearity goes a long way. Sometimes you pull a last-minute reverse to surprise your audience: “OMG! Bobby’s still alive! It was all a dream!” (I apologize for crossing the timestreams).

If that’s the case, then when I say that How to Start Your Own Country got a little long and rambling, is that because it failed to tell its story well, or that it failed because it didn’t conform to how I expected it to tell its story? Because either are real possibilities. (You could quibble with me here and assert that Aristotle’s work doesn’t even apply in the first place so I enact my own argument by applying Aristotelian standards out of context and I would say that you have missed my point entirely Mr/s Lost in the Microsemiotics (that’s “Mr/s Can’t See the Forest for the Trees, BTW).) I learned facts about an odd little quirk of history and law, and they showed me some eccentric ideas thrust into the world (MAN, talk about performing yourself – sheesh). It was fun. It got long.

Tagfish used individual screens as literal, visual placeholders for the projections of the men speak from them. An interesting idea, and a potentially enthralling story about bureaucracy and how a redevelopment idea can be killed not by committee but by the very process that is meant to document and regularize business planning. Instead, it was technically superb (in design and execution), but with a quite dull story. Although by necessity it was highly edited, they pretended to a cinema verite style of recording by using prolonged silences, awkward pauses, and charisma free committee members.

The execution of their idea, however, is impractical on any kind of scale. Costly in motor control and projection (not to mention the rigged table and chairs), it is an effective blend of performance and recording. So what does it do, if that’s the case? I think shows like this succeed as experiments – they’ve shown us a new possible path. Because I think there’s a corollary – if every story wants to be told in its own way, finding a new way to tell a story might yield new kinds of stories to tell entirely.

And that’s an exciting thought.

Although as something that holds your interest, I gotta say WAY too long. And slow. Hoo boy.


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