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Umami #4

An intersection between Beckett’s “Endgame,” Michel Khleifi’s “Zindeeq,” Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” Ujala Sehgal’s ninth grade English papers and Brandon Camp’s “Love Happens.”

Museum artwork from Cordoba, Argentina

One of my ninth grade English teachers wrote this comment on a paper of mine (a wildly fictitious account of my 14-year old life of debauchery that, apropos of nothing, turned into random song lyrics lifted from Nine Inch Nails and Our Lady Peace):

I can follow through most of this okay, but you might consider preparing the reader so they know what to think when they get to the end.

Or maybe you don’t care what the reader thinks.  Cool.

And just like that, I was scarred for life.  Because it is cool, isn’t it?  It’s that sheer coolness that makes disjointed surrealism my shameful weakness.  Shameful as in, if unbeknownst to me, someone resequenced the Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy “Love Happens” so that it ran from end to beginning, cut the sound in half the scenes and titled it “Umami #4” (tm Aviva), there is a chance I’d react, “BY GOD, THIS IS BRILLIANT!”

The architect Mies van der Rohe famously said, “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.” In that vein, let’s temporarily fuck the egalitarian perspective that if I happen to enjoy watching “Umami #4,” who cares if in construction it’s a piece of shit.  I may always find disjointed surrealism interesting.  But let’s talk about when it’s good.

So pseudo-pretension aside, let me make my case for my love of the abstract:  However compelling what is present can be, it is necessarily less so than what is conspicuously absent.  The “exclusions of a rhyme” – to steal a phrase from the poet J.V. Cunningham – the negative space, offers so much more for an artist to work with because the potential richness is unlimited by anything other than the audience’s own imagination and intellect.

But therein lies the dilemma: you need to distinguish what the audience enhances from what the artist supplies.  A favorite display of this is in Yasmina Reza ‘s play “Art,” where a man lets his friend graffiti a stick figure skier onto a completely white painting (that cost him $50,000) after their feud over its stupidity unseats deeper emotional issues between them. The skier is later removed, but the once skeptical friend is now overwhelmed by the painting’s “artistic significance”: “It represents a man who moves across a space… then disappears,” he says tearfully.

But can we always tell whether the proverbial emperor is wearing any clothes?  I started worrying about “Umami #4” last weekend, when I caught both Michel Khleifi’s “Zindeeq” at the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, and Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” at the Steppenwolf Theatre.  Both works are abstract, and in both almost nothing happens.  Needless to say, I liked both.  But while both are interesting, only “Endgame” is actually good.

Okay, so this may not seem revelatory.  As the friend who saw both “Zindeeq” and “Endgame” with me said, “There are artists you can trust to have multiple levels of meaning, and those you cannot.” Beckett is obviously one of them.  Khleifi, poor guy, is a relatively unknown filmmaker, whom critics have accused of watching too much Antonioni.

But trust issues aside, the more I thought about it, what I actually liked about “Zindeeq” was all of the flaws it didn’t have.  Which gives rise to this rather depressing theory:  Is this what we truly like about blank space – that it doesn’t, well, leave room for the artist to fuck up?  Perhaps much of my love of surrealism is just a knee-jerk reaction to seeing so much that is not only not good, but actively bad.  Perhaps “Umami #4” will be interesting for the mere fact that it will have none of the flaws that make movies like “Love Happens” dull.  “Love Happens” requires its audience to be imbeciles; “Umami #4” will at least force me to think.  Of course, I won’t be able to say exactly what it made me think about, but if asked I can respond, “I don’t know, it JUST DID,” which, being an abstract answer, once again sounds more impressive to me than a concrete one.

So I suppose that if I ever do get to see “Umami #4” (especially if told it’s a lost Bergman masterpiece), I may very well find it the greatest film I’ve ever seen.  And that’s not because I love the abstract; I just have really, really low expectations.


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