Anja Kirschner & David Panos: The Empty Plan
Focal Point Gallery Southend
22 November to 4 January
In their previous film The Last Days of Jack Shepherd, 2009, (included in the current British Art Show) Anja Kirschner & David Panos used professional actors for the first time. In an interview with Tank Magazine they outlined some of the frustrations they faced and how these led them to work on their latest project, The Empty Plan: 'We were intrigued by the assumptions that actors bring to their work, in particular the way that contemporary acting is dominated by variations on Stanislavski's technique. We instinctively tend towards the more static, reflexive, Brechtian acting style and in our last film we asked the actors to adopt gestures from classical rhetoric and Commedia dell'arte so as to escape the subjective assumptions of conventional acting. However, some actors still want to involve themselves in the psychological life of their character, and seek to bring that out in their performance. The new film tries to explore actors at work onstage in both Stanislavskian and Brechtian modes, and help us work out what they actually mean and entail today.'
This is a neat if slightly modest summation of the new film which, although set in a specific historical period, deals with many issues pertinent to contemporary cultural production. Shot on location in Los Angeles and the slightly less glamorous locales of Catford, Camberwell and Southend, The Empty Plan appears primarily to attempt an exploration and contextualization of Brecht' s struggle to define his theatrical theories while living in exile in the US. The film counterpoints various stagings of Brecht's play The Mother with scenes from Stanislavskian and Brechtian acting workshops and dramatisations of Brecht's frustrations in exile. It also combines stock footage of war-torn Europe with art-historical images to form a meditative counter-narrative dealing with exile, cultural and political collapse, and 'Old' Europe versus the 'New World'. If it appears on first viewing to be a complex and well-made examination of a specific historical period, on repeated considerations it becomes evident that it is also a strong contribution to current aesthetico-political debates around such issues as: what is at stake politically in the choice of a specific mode of expression? Is empathy a valid generator of political action? Is political art possible at all without first establishing a political/politicised context? In an important scene Brecht stands on a vantage point overlooking Los Angeles with his agent. They discuss the small victory of sneaking the melody of the Comintern song into the Fritz Lang film they have been working on ('it will be funny when they recognise it in Europe,' says the agent) and then Brecht turns towards the viewer and says: 'In Berlin, when it was already too late, there was still more future.' Pointing, he adds, 'Here an Aztec temple, there a Swiss chalet, behind it Spanish pueblos and what the hell is that?' The agent shrugs. This is a brilliantly condensed evocation of modernist melancholy and the longing for narrative. In the New World all culture is condensed and demeaned in the melting pot of late capitalism while Europe tears itself apart. Brecht's art has become decontextualised and with it the man. A quote from Jean-Luc Godard, a pupil of Brecht, comes to mind in a 2005 interview with the Guardian: 'There was a time when cinema might have changed society, but that time was missed.'
The Empty Plan is a significant development for Kirschner & Panos. While The Last Days of ]ack Shepherd impressed with its ambition, and what had been achieved with the budget available, it was hard to shake the feeling that it was not a happy marriage of medium and message, and that a close reading of Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged (a significant influence on the film despite a later disagreement played out in the online version of Mute magazine) had rendered the film mildly reductive and, without significant distribution outside a gallery context, redundant. The Empty Plan is a much more satisfying marriage of medium and message, and the vast research involved in its creation is worn more lightly and demonstrated with greater sophistication. There are also some surprising and interestingly discordant moments, as when the camera lingers for some time over reproductions of Bruegel' s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus while an abstract piece of sound design is heard, reminding one of similar scenes in Tarkovsky - an unlikely influence on fervent materialists.
Brecht wanted to build a new theatre in opposition to Aristotelian notions of empathy and catharsis, modes of feeling that he felt were outdated and bourgeois, and that caused complacency rather than action. In The Empty Plan, stagings of The Mother in pre-war Berlin, where revolutionary fervour and dialectic confrontation appear to be pointing to the future, are contrasted with rehearsals for the play in the US where the actors are practising Stanislavskian techniques and seek to find a way into the emotional lives and physical sensations of the characters.
It is obvious which side Kirschner & Panos take and that they believe this is a relevant theme in today's global art industry. lt is heartening to find filmmakers refusing Godard's melancholy defeatism, but it is hard not to feel that work like this needs a broader platform than a small gallery can offer. Again and again one finds oneself longing for this kind of thing to find a television audience or a cinema release. Of course, in both cases the institutions and funding necessary are hard to come by and so one should feel glad that this work gets made and seen at all.
JOHN DOUGLAS MILLAR is a writer, critic and poet based in London.