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Life comes at you fast, and in Jodie Mack’s irresistible experimental travelogue The Grand Bizarre, life is but a blur, whirring by on planes, trains, and automobiles. Using fabrics as a means to explore the knotty issues around globalization, Mack weaves together a kaleidoscopic meditation on how we — our clothes, cultural identities, and other economic baggage — are tied together. A pattern emerges in her precisely orchestrated images: We are more similar than our greatest differences.
In the handful or so of Mack’s shorts I’ve seen so far, like Let Your Light Shine and Persian Pickles, so much of the films’ focus is on color, shapes, and movement. It’s easy to just let her geometric compositions wash over, let the bright colors soak the screen, and just stare in awe as the flurry of images and music stir your emotions and thoughts.
At one hour and 30 seconds long, The Grand Bizarre, screening this weekend at the New York Film Festival, has a look and feel that’s starkly different from anything you’ll find in today’s Hollywood. Filmed on grainy 16mm film stock, the images have an organic, lightweight quality even as they address heavy topics like manufacturing and distribution.
The film opens on a fiery shot of a burning pile of boxes, perhaps filled with old fabrics. It then flows into a seaside scene of fabrics laying out on a sunny day as waves splash closely by. It’s as if the materials are drying in the sun from a swim in the ocean below. Sure enough, that’s the next image we see. The crackling sounds of fire give way to the sound of crashing waves. In the mix, there’s also the sound of an airplane engine revving up to fly. We’re hopping on a stop-motion animated trip around the world in an hour. We will travel everywhere and nowhere, since none of the locations are ever specified, though she filmed in far-flung countries as New Zealand, India, Turkey, China, and Greece.
The Grand Bizarre has a sense of humor which makes it less intimidating than its abstract nature suggests. (There’s no voiceover narration to be your tour guide, just your eyes.) Fabrics will pack themselves in suitcases, which will then do a conga line out of a house and through the airport. Square swatches of fabrics will swap out in rapid succession, like blinking Christmas lights, in seemingly random spots like the inside of an airplane cabin, on top of tables in a boat, or hanging off the sides of a filing cabinet. Numerous globes you’d find in a classroom appear throughout the piece, and in one funny sequence, instead of a physical globe of the earth, she plays with a digital version on a touchscreen, turning the image to the sound of a futuristic synthesizer.
We’re traveling towards the future, towards increased travel, globalization, endless repetition, and mechanized processes. It’s a future where traveling is easier than ever before in human history and connection with someone 12 hours ahead of us is as easy as a Skype call. Yet, we’re still divided from the shops our clothes are made in and the boats that bring them to shore. Mack draws comparisons to culture-specific patterns from different countries, yet they could all be coming from the same one factory in a completely different part of the world. There’s a conflicted sense of whether this kind of hegemony is good or bad; it’s just the way things are now. Manufacturing a rug is no longer one person’s solitary project, it’s a mass-produced item woven together by a machine, not hands.
In addition to her keen eye for patterns and design, Mack has an ear for using found sounds from her travels. When observing birds form their airborne patterns, their chirps and calls are woven into the mix. In one hilarious segment, the sound of a Skype call is used as a backbeat to the music, most of which she composed herself. Although lacking in lyrics, the strange rhythmic brew helps give the images a new kind of life on screen. We feel rushed or calmed by the soundtrack’s changing tones and tempos, even if the images are rushing by at the same breakneck speed.
Mack’s The Grand Bizarre must be seen to be properly experienced, preferably on a big screen, where one can wander through her images. It’s a travelogue and modern-day reflection of our impact in and connection to the rest of the world. In the middle of comparing designs from one culture to another, Mack will also connect how our languages and knowledge have been shared along the same train routes. It’s up to the viewer to decide what visual souvenirs they want to take from Mack’s journey around the world in 60 minutes and 30 seconds.
The Grande Bizarre by Jodie Mack is screening at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Howard Gilman Theater,70 Lincoln Center Plaza #4, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on Saturday, October 13, 7:30pm.