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It is very strange to be watching a film and see the inside of your local laundromat. Or to recognize the outside of the bodega where you frequently purchase breakfast sandwiches, mostly because you’re too lazy to walk to a better place but also because the owner is extremely friendly. The images you’re seeing are the ones you’re most familiar with, the images that you see every day. It makes you feel like you’re somehow part of the film you’re watching, like you might see yourself on screen, quite literally, crossing the street or washing your clothes.
Understanding that James N. Kienitz Wilkins — whose new experimental documentary Common Carrier has its North American premiere at BAMcinemaFest tonight — most likely lives in my neighborhood is not the only reason for my personal connection to his work. Rarely has a film captured so sharply the modern precariousness of working from home, of the artist’s struggle to balance freedom and dependence. To be an artist, Wilkins says toward the end of his film, is to be on “strike against life.” You are engaged with the world in order to survive. There are always bills that need to be paid, but there is also the willingness — and maybe the privilege — to work against the professional world and its associated cultural assumptions. “At least when I’m making stuff,” one character says about her life as an artist, “I feel like I can safely and creatively be in my own world without necessarily belonging.” There is the desire to demand something better, to allow yourself the opportunity to move between the two modes of living. But how is this even possible?
The disjuncture between the creative life and the demands of conventional responsibilities is something Common Carrier tries to figure out over its 78 minutes. Wilkins, whose films have become a frequent presence in avant-garde sidebars of major film festivals and were recently featured in the Whitney Biennial, is interested in how we navigate between commercial and non-commercial zones. In his films, the stance is not one of total rejection of traditional work. More than most experimental filmmakers working today, his films are extremely funny and allow for the influence of popular forms, even if they are rearranged or broken apart. (Kindred spirits and sometimes-collaborators Gabriel Abrantes, Alexander Carver, Daniel Schmidt, and Benjamin Crotty are working in a similar vein.) Lectures, pitch meetings, talking-head interviews, detective narratives, and verité documentary have been used in his previous films, most notably in the three works that make up the Andre Trilogy (2014–15). These are forms that are recognizable, but which Wilkins flips over, shuffles around, and remixes, sometimes to the point of disarray.
Multiple vignettes run through Common Carrier, focusing on the lives of a small group of creative people: Wilkins plays a version of himself, fixing products around his apartment via YouTube tutorials and stressing out about a USB stick containing his work that FedEx has misplaced; a screenwriter dealing with a child custody battle and forced to do construction work while figuring out ways to write a sellable screenplay; an art collector; two artists; and an urban shaman. None of the characters are given names in the film and they are only identified by their first names in the credits.
The entire film unfolds in double-exposure, meaning that there are constantly overlapping images on screen. Sometimes it’s two different angles of the same scene — as in a conversation between Wilkins and an artist friend that shows both their faces overlaid — and other times the connections between the images are less obvious. The soundtrack is a maze of dialogue mixed with the almost-constant presence of radio sounds, specifically from New York City stations WNYC and Hot97. At first the effect is jarring, but ultimately it adds an interesting, if at times unsettling, mystery to most of the scenes, which confront you with multiple audio-visual layers to explore. Seemingly accidental moments begin to stand out, like the constant updates about the Verizon workers strike (which turns into one of the film’s subplots), or the presence in the mix of multiple Rihanna songs with lyrics involving the word “work.”
Wilkins seems obsessed with words and how they are used. The confusion around double meanings runs through Common Carrier — the title itself is a legal term that both FedEx and Verizon use to their advantage — as well as the infiltration of product advertising into our ordinary language. Dunkin Donuts, Amazon, and the aforementioned delivery and communications companies all appear. Internet terminology is littered throughout the film (one character repeats the term “wifi” to his pet bird) and web searches can often be seen happening in the backgrounds of scenes. Part of the role of being an artist may involve being on strike against the world, but is it possible to be on strike with the world of commercial products that surrounds us? Common Carrier is aware that it does not have an answer. “Every movie needs resolution,” Wilkins says toward the end of the film. “I’m starting to think this one is a lost cause.”