program notes for Kate McCabe’s May 4, 2017 screening for Experimental Response Cinema
written by Lindsay Needels
What would it look like to not only look the deep dark void in the eye, brow raised and bold, but to embrace it– to hold its hand and make it a friend? Indeed, “the void” has often been used as a metaphor for a certain ennui. Existential isolation in an alienating landscape. Images of cowboys riding off into the apocalyptic light of the sun-kissed horizon above a cruel barren desert come to mind, as do the heroines of Antonioni films wandering lost and solemn through crumbling, empty streets. Films like Red Desert or any number of famed westerns have created a mythological desert landscape that is cruel and untamed, devoid of life. A symbol, perhaps, of a distressed primal subconscious in a rigid modernized world.
And this may be well and good for men like Michelangelo Antonioni and John Ford, but filmmaker Kate McCabe shows no fear of the desert–hell, she dances in the desert.
Since moving to Joshua Tree, California in 2005, McCabe has created a number of films that ultimately turn the tired image of the “cruel desert void” on its head. What is clear in the works of her decade-spanning catalog is a radical playfulness, a bringing to light of the omitted images and realities of the desert void. There is a winking mischief and mayhem that sees the distance, the absence, the isolation of this cowboy life and celebrates these very realities while at the same time illuminating those aspects of the desert landscape that have been omitted by mythology: namely, the life, the bright blue midday skies, the pink cactus flowers.
Originally from Philadelphia, McCabe herself is a kind of cowgirl rogue with a space-age punk rock twist. Like many before her, McCabe moved out to the wild west to pursue her [experimental film] dreams, and experienced first hand the kind of isolation that comes from living life in a landscape that is haunted by its own mythology, and in particular, a mythology marked by unquenched desire. This, indeed, is both the excitement and melancholy of the Los Angeles desert. Reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s News From Home, McCabe’s work encapsulates the experience of the solitary feminine traveler via the format of a letter. But where Akerman’s work suggests loneliness in its one-sided distance, McCabe manages to celebrate and embrace this isolation in her letters.
A love letter, as flowery and romantic as it may be, is an indication of distance and solitude. There is a failure inherent in the form of the letter, in the absence it suggests. The other being communicated with is never present, and as such the correspondence of a letter becomes a conversation with the self in as much as with the other. A letter represents a play between presence and absence. Kate McCabe’s “love letters” certainly play with this fact–constructed with re-edited discarded footage from her own works and a voiceover containing the love letters of a free-spirited French woman, it is clear that the inspiration for the images on screen and the audio that plays over them present a disconnect in time and space.
However, these letters don’t dwell on loneliness or weep for the disconnect they encapsulate. They’re funny– life-affirming even as they describe the bitter end of a torrid affair. The images shown are often beautiful and surreal, offering colorful desert landscapes and smiling faces. Isolation may be suggested in the letter format, but here that isolation is celebrated and given a different name: independence. In their very construction, there is a punk-rock, DIY aesthetic to the “love letter” series that ultimately celebrates the solitude of desert life. Indeed, many of McCabe’s films, from the sweet ode Song for Pickles to Milk and Honey function as love letters to the desert void and the beings therein.
In the latter, correspondence takes on another form in the soundtrack, as archival audio from the apollo 11 space mission plays alongside timelapse footage of McCabe in her Los Angeles home. Similar to Akerman’s News from Home, there is a sense in these recordings of what is left out and omitted in correspondence. Disconnect is made plain in Milk and Honey. There is disconnect between sound and image, disconnect within movement via the illumination of stillness that time lapse provides. But all this disconnect ultimately works to celebrate these gaps and fissures: between sound and image, presence and absence. As always, her work is a celebration of the liminal space offered between these disconnections– a celebration of the unnamable void.
McCabe’s work has been described as “observations of our twilight worlds–” and indeed, this rings true in her focus on the in-between. In calling forth the moments of quiet and kinetic stillness within the trajectory of the everyday, McCabe manages to call attention to the gravity –and vitality– of “nothingness.” She celebrates the apocalyptic void by showing that nothing is truly empty. Her films do not exorcise, but hold a seance and a skeleton dance. There are ghosts here, but there is no death.