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LOS ANGELES — Photographer Catherine Opie has ventured into film for the first time. Known primarily as a social documenter of America’s physical, ideological, and political landscapes, her new short film The Modernist is inspired by veteran French filmmaker Chris Marker’s landmark 1962 movie La Jetée. Now on view at Regen Projects, Opie’s silent film is a fiction without a narrative, told solely with still images, in the style of Marker’s photo-centric film. But whereas La Jetée is about post-apocalyptic futuristic time travel, Opie’s film is a kind of strange ode to the city of Los Angeles she loves so much.
We are uncertain about the ambiguous identity of the protagonist, who is played by Opie’s artist friend, Stosh, aka Pig Pen. At the beginning of the film, we watch him reading Los Angeles Times newspaper stories about fires while inside the sparse single room where he lives. Surrounded by just a few pieces of mid-century furniture and books on modern architecture, it’s clear he loves modernist aesthetics — he even makes models of iconic mid-century Los Angeles homes.
It comes as a surprise, then, when we discover his plan to destroy architectural monuments central to Los Angeles’s artistic and cinematic history. In the dark of the night we see him carry a can of gasoline and Swans matches into a home designed by A. Quincy Jones, which belongs to art dealer Larry Gagosian. He pours the gasoline like an action painter. Is he a real arsonist, or a performance artist?
The film is entirely silent, except for the startling sound of a match striking at the very midpoint of the 22-minute film. We expect to hear the sound again whenever the burning match re-appears, but we never hear it again.
Later, we see the protagonist in his room clipping news reports from the Times about renowned modernist homes designed by legendary architect John Lautner that have been burned by arson: the Sheats-Goldstein House (recently gifted to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ), the Silvertop home in Silver Lake, the Chemosphere residence in Hollywood Hills, and finally the Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House. These Photoshopped news stories are fake, but are mixed with real news about the 2016 US election candidates. In this sense, The Modernist is a reflection on the post-truth era of conflicting information systems.
Interestingly, the protagonist does not watch TV or interact with a cell phone or any electronic media. The Times is still delivered to his door, conveying his nostalgia for bygone days. He carefully constructs a collage on the wall of his room, which hearkens back to a standard cliché from detective stories. He pastes newspaper clippings of wildfires and arson over Julius Schulman’s photographs of midcentury homes that idealize the LA lifestyle in postwar years. Words pop out of images in his collage like slam and beat poetry.
Opie told me, “We change the story in our minds. It hinges on the questioning and fascination of the viewer.” There is no neat conclusion and the mysteries are still left unsolved.
At Regen Projects, the film is projected inside a custom, modernist theater designed by architect Michael Maltzan. On the walls surrounding the theater hang the 33 still images Opie used in her film. The shiny, curved surface reflects and distorts the images, giving an eerie quality that undercuts the utopian hope midcentury architecture once symbolized.
The Modernist offers a nostalgic view of modernist architecture, when it once symbolized the American dream, using postwar materials and mass production to make highly designed homes affordable. But in LA’s current housing crisis, midcentury modern residences have turned into symbols of the wealthy elite. Opie thus confronts the legacy of modernism, leading us to the inevitable question: Has the American dream gone up in flames?
Catherine Opie: The Modernist continues at Regen Projects ( 6750 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles) through February 17.