Living and Acting in L.A.1: The Fictional Documentaries of Borjana Ventzislavova
by Claudia Slanar
People like to believe there is nothing that hasn’t already been said, written, or shown about Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the city remains literally incomprehensible. “Los Angeles is hard to get right,” muses filmmaker Thom Andersen in his filmic opus magnum, Los Angeles Plays Itself.2 Artists and historians alike have slaved away at it, alternately characterizing it as a simulation, a jigsaw puzzle, an amalgam of ideas, concepts, desires; a utopia and dystopia at once. Yet, “Beyond its myriad rhetorics and mirages, it can be presumed that the city actually exists.”3
It’s the same with Hollywood: whether as the city’s “alter-ego” (Mike Davis) or as a “metonym for the film industry” (Andersen), it is partly responsible for these different imaginations, yet also an actual place where people live. Situated in the hills that are a part of this real Hollywood is the famous Case Study House #22, also known as the “Stahl House”. A newspaper article written on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this icon of postwar Modernism from 1959 quotes the children of C.H. “Buck” Stahl, a former football player, who report about the normality of growing up in the house, diving for coins in the swimming pool, or rollerskating in the hallway.4 It’s hard to imagine architect Pierre Koenig’s house, site of countless photo shoots and film sets, as an ideal playground for children, yet – thanks largely to Julius Shulman’s 1960 photographs – it’s still considered the epitome of California “cool”.
Similarly, hardly a trace of ordinary life appears in Borjana Ventzislavova’s video American Dream Acting. The house serves as a playground of another kind: a stageset for actresses and actors who are meant to feel at home for the span of a single day. We quickly recognize, however, that this is not the case. A woman sits in a large armchair, wrapped in a black towel. She appears to have just emerged from the shower as she begins to ponder her motivation for giving up her teaching career in Germany to dedicate her life to acting in Los Angeles. She seems uniquely alien and lost amid the surroundings, which are color-coordinated with the garnet-red turban of the towel on her head.
Following the convention of the narrative motion picture, the initial introduction, or “establishing shot”, opens with a panorama of Los Angeles. The split-screen divides the picture into two halves, however, both showing the view from the house to the city below, with its street grid stretching toward a horizon that vanishes into the smog. The left half shows part of the house’s cornice and its spectacular cantilevered roof, shot at an angle clearly referencing the Julius Shulman photographs. The city seems to be depicted twice: once through the steel frame of the house, and once through the frame of the camera. In and out of the first frame, the distant downtown hi-rises appear, like dupes or mirages. Unlike other cities, the architecture doesn’t function like a public landmark; it is the grid on which buildings stand that is immediately identifiable as Los Angeles. Although the panorama emulates a perfect 16:9 format, the split / jump blocks a spatial continuum, exposing the construction and incoherence of a city reflected in the life stories and careers of its inhabitants. Reflected simulations.
In five episodes, each dedicated to a character – Monika, Rossen, Michael, Srinivasa, and Kristine – American Dream Acting deals with the dream of acting in Hollywood / Los Angeles as a story of migration, assimilation, and alienation in the course of a single day. The actors, however, play themselves in “real life”, while this is deliberately unmasked as a facet of a performance, a pure construct. Nevertheless, “the real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.”5 This process of fictionalization progresses fluidly, not in one direction, but constantly alternating between documentary and fiction. The ambiguity of the drama is literally inscribed in the image, with the split-screen showing the protagonists from two slightly different angles, alternating between close-up and mid-range shots. While they narrate in one half, the other manifests the artist’s interest in the person, their facial expressions, gestures, and behavior in and toward space. The camera functions as an agent in search of potential, a spontaneous expression of feeling, naturalness, that these stories of uprooting and the dream of the ideal good life render authentically and empathetically comprehensible – both in the screen tests as well as in the final cut.
Each of the protagonists is shown in a full shot in one place of the house, performing certain actions that are initially hard to interpret. Typical hand movements? Training? Impersonation? But of what? Later on, I learned that the director instructed them to carry out specific actions that would express their current attitude towards life. For some, this was shadow-boxing as a defensive gesture; against competitors, and against the phantoms of economic pressures and the failure of the American dream, likely be written off as a personal failure, rarely as a structural problem. Others do yoga, play football, or wait, pacing the room back and forth; curiously subdued gestures, as if the environment, the house’s success story, keeps them from making emotional outbursts, or feeling disappointment, sadness, or anger. Acting is not reacting. In the truest sense of the word, these Deleuzian images generate “contemplative characters” who “no longer know how they should react to stimuli (author’s note: post-modernity).”6
And again, it is the Modernist architecture of the Stahl house and its mediatization that co-produce these affects or the repression thereof, and allow images of basic homelessness, as well as a perfect, seamless adaptation and adjustment to its starkly symbolic surfaces. The series of photographs titled American Dream Acting places these circumstances in opposition to one another, questions the influence of these images, which just can’t break free from the cliché. In the two-channel video, on the other hand, the spoken word, the narrative, collision, and refraction is still provocative. This becomes clearest in the shot of Srinivasa propped up on the white kitchen counter wearing a white shirt as he speaks about the racism and sexism that he confronts every day: “Are you mixed?” “Are you gay?” “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” A hallucinatory reflection of relations that equates the split-screen with the ruptures of society.
Reflections and duplications function as tropes of the city, which is not one, but many, just as the potential roles of the actors, who have come to live out their dream, to embody it, to represent something. For Ventzislavova, it’s about this longing, which is inseparably linked to the preservation of an illusion, of the American dream. But she ventures even further, asking what happens between fantasy and real life, and why. Where do collective imagination, wishful thinking, different life plans, and techonologies clash with the self? One of these points of intersection is the struggle for a visa and a work permit, whose necessity disrupts the dream sooner or later. Great cunning is required, or one of three options that Michael lists off: “Win the lottery, be exceptional at something, or get married.” Either live and work illegally, or go back to your homeland. “You’ve got to remember the original idea,” says Rossen, who studied directing years ago at the Film Academy in Sofia. But in a city that easily forgets or “has a false memory” (Norman Klein)7, what does that mean?
The negotiation of these questions is just as much a part of the Permanent Casting photographic series and the video Self Acting. In both, the rigors of a selection process that makes or breaks careers, which are in turn linked to a film’s commercial success, becomes tangible and visible: of 1,127 applications, 65 were selected, and 42 showed up, of which only eight were ultimately part of the final shoot in the Stahl house. Depending on the version, five or six are on screen. The “day job”, the often precarious occupation (though in no way any less precarious than acting itself), is a reality of life, even if the actor waiting tables or the actress who cleans houses are themselves already clichés; for every forty residents of Los Angeles County, only one works in the movie industry.8 Every film shoot is valuable and viewed as a good chance by the protagonists. “It’s happening here, right now,” says one who was invited to a casting audition, brimming with confidence. The American Dream dies hard.
Initial tremors did occur in 2008, however, when the effects of the mortgage crisis – the dream always included a dream house – brought about the collapse of important financial institutions. Since then, defaults and foreclosures have become a daily event, jobs either no longer exist or are tough to get; social insurance and health care are dreams that already lie beyond the means of most people living in the USA. The specter of economic stagnation is afoot, but can only threaten those who still believe in unchecked growth, in the accuracy of living standards.
In her photo series, It shakes everywhere, Borjana Ventzislavova treats these tremors as a premonition of collapse, an actual seismic uprising in advance of a potentially permanent catastrophe. Both northern and southern California are famous for geological instability. But instability is the very nature of things – and paradoxically, financial markets as well. Stability, on the other hand, is more precarious, and can only be maintained with great difficulty. The last big earthquake to hit Los Angeles was in 1994, and the next one is expected to be triggered by the San Andreas Fault in 2039. Smaller earthquakes happen daily and are considered normal, no longer driving anybody from their beds – except for the people in the photographs. The tremors forced them onto the street in their pajamas, and now (almost) everybody there is out for themselves: unbelieving, shocked, numb, arms oddly outstretched, gazing upwards, unsure whether the quaking was a dream, imagined, or actually happened. We can imagine ourselves in this situation, the panic, nervousness, intense effects, bodies re/acting, running into one another, falling down, collapsing. Yet the artist is also interested in other things: the topography of a city whose inhabitants must suppress the threat of danger, as well as the fictionalization of reality and the reflection of social and economic circumstances.
Thus we see these sleepwalker-like entities in front of their various dwellings, which do not reveal much about how diverse L.A.’s neighborhoods are, but rather how suburban they are. Or, going back to Norman Klein, “The Urban is the paradox of not knowing what the urban is, in a relative dense environment.”8 Now we begin to understand why Beatriz Colomina’s declaration that “Every aspect of architecture, even the city itself, has been rethought in this century (note: the 20th) from the house up,” so aptly applies to this city.9 The tremors briefly reverse relationships: public space, the street, becomes a private, secure place, not just a fleeting necessity or a territory from which one must distance oneself – ideally inside a “gated community”. However, the normality of daily life soon returns. But in the meantime, these inhabitants are caught in a strange state of shock that won’t let them rebel against the destruction of the neighborhood, against the removal of low-paying jobs from gentrifying neighborhoods, against asymmetric class relations being cemented into place. Lagging behind. It has already started. In this case, fiction limps along after reality. But if, like cultural critic Arne De Boever, we regard collapse etymologically as something that provokes commonality and possible strategies for collective survival,10 then we will be able to reframe persistence as astonishment about a vision that points to different possibilities, a different life, after the American Dream has been shattered once and for all.
1 The title is a reference to a film by William Friedkins, To Live and Die in L.A. (USA 1985).
2 USA 2003.
3 Mike Davis, City of Quartz, New York, 1990, p. 23. Beyond its myriad rhetorics and mirages, it can be presumed that the city actually exists.
4 Barbara Thornberg, Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22 as home, in: L.A. Times, June 27, 2009.
5 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, London 2004, p. 38.
6 Bruno Lessard, Missed Encounters: Film Theory and Expanded Cinema, in: Refractory, Vol. 14, Dec. 2008, http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2008/12/26/missed-encounters-film-theory-and-expanded-cinema-%E2%80%93-bruno-lessard accessed on March 14, 2012.
7 Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, New York, 1997.
8 Norman Klein, from Critical Conversations, lecture given at the USC Roski School of Fine Arts, February 9, 2009.
9 Beatriz Colomina, The Media House, in: Assemblage No. 27, August 1995, p. 56.
10 Arne De Boever, Formations of Collapse, lecture given at the Center for Integrated Media (California Institute of the Arts), November 21, 2011. For historical and theoretical background, see his book States of Exception in the Contemporary Novel, Continuum, 2012.