Art Deco: The Films of Deco Dawson

When Deco Dawson began making films in 1998, he had already developed a reputation as a precocious playwright and theatre director. His work for the theatre showed the strong influence of related traditions like slapstick and vaudeville, and of individuals like Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. He transferred that sensibility directly from the stage to film, although by both instinct and ability, its expression was decidedly minimal.

Dawson's first films were based on capturing simple gestures--knitting, knotting, washing and polishing shoes. The actions were repetitive to the point of obsession and were devoid of narrative intention. The young woman in *FILM(emend)* knits and jabs at an old sweater in a space lit by a single 100-watt bulb, so that only her face and hands are visible. Shot as a series of still images that move forward in time, it is almost an anti-film. In his next project, Dawson focused on the activity of shoe shining. Called *FILM(luster)*, the almost eight-minute-long Super 8 film used the same editing technique that propelled its predecessor, only faster. A man compulsively polishes a collection of shoes using chocolate sauce thickened with flour. There are some visual tricks where shoes turn into books, and there is a brief trip to a wall that he climbs and then jumps from, but for the most part the actor limits his attention to the pedestrian task at hand.  * 

FILM(luster)* also began a pattern that has stayed with Dawson up to the present: he constantly rolls ideas and tricks from one film into the next. It's as if each film is a mini-summary of the achievements of the film that just preceded it. In *FILM(lode)*, Dawson uses a pair of actors to present one of his favourite themes: the love/hate dependency that often characterizes the relationship between two people. In this case the couple is a pair of miners whose hands seem to have minds of their own and are determined to commit acts of violence. The film was shot in three places: an opening sequence in Arizona at a tourist mine, in Dawson's basement where the actors hack away at an unseen couch, and an outside dream sequence filmed in what looks like a desert but is actually a 30-degree-below Winnipeg winter. Dawson said that he didn't have a clear idea what the film was until after it was finished. "I basically just shot and then found the film in the editing room." *FILM(lode)* has some arresting moments; at the end of the film, after the two miners have done everything to destroy one another, they embrace as if the characters from Waiting for Godot  were boxers who had fought to a draw. As the film fades to black, the last thing we see are two pairs of bright eyes, glowing like fireflies in the suddenly pacific air. It is an inspired moment.   

Among his early work, the film that most successfully exploits the idea of the double is *FILM(knout)*, his first collaboration with Sharon A Johnson shot in 1999. Dawson's never-miss editing and Johnson's compelling performance is a winning combination; she radiates an intensity that is both menacing and seductive. A statuesque woman with dramatic features, she borders on the possessed in *FILM(knout)*, as much by the devil as the camera. Dawson recognized how good she was and used her as the star of *The Fever of the Western Nile*, 2003, in which she plays the guardian spirit and caretaker of four dead ravens. Johnson is also an artist and she made the birds for the film, including a 12-foot-long specimen into which she crawls. The sequence sends a riot of mixed messages--maternal, sexual, shamanic, even biblical. She's a female ravenizing version of Jonah and the Whale. Dawson's take on it, however, is less Old Testament than New Testicular. In the commentary for the DVD he exclaims, "I love that splitting the slit shot," and Johnson, who is in on one of the commentaries, says something about the necessity to change the rating on the DVD after his stated admiration for the big raven scene. But *FILM(knout)* was lovable for other reasons. It advanced Dawson's filmmaking in a number of ways; it was more straightforward than anything he had made; it was shot outdoors; it had a whopping $7000 budget, and it had been commissioned by a Swiss curator as part of a European touring exhibition.  *  

The Fever*, however, wasn't the first time Dawson turned his attention to the world of art. In the summer of 2002, he shot *FILM(dzama)*, in which a number of his habitual notions are evident, including the look through the keyhole he had used in his first film and the doppelganger effect that set a framework for the psychic range in which his characters would operate. But the film on Marcel Dzama, one of the original members of The Royal Art Lodge and, in 2000, already a rising art star, was a case of having to make a major creative adjustment. The original idea was to have Marcel play himself, but a series of exhibition commitments made that impossible. So Marcel's father, Maurice, took over the role of his artist son. What began as a film about a specific artist and his art became a film about the ways in which the artistic imagination is haunted by the things it creates. The artist leaves his elevated studio perch and literally comes to a backstage party, where he disguises himself and wanders among his drawn creations--treemen, cowboys, Tin Man and a naked young woman. What made *FILM(dzama)* so popular (it won the Best Short Film Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001) was the way in which Dzama's distinctive drawings were brought to life. Dawson erased the line between art and life and made the entire film an imaginative field.    

Interestingly, Dawson tends to be hermetic in his regard for his own films. His career is a case of arresting and arrested development. For the first five years, he moved incrementally, taking what he learned in one film and applying it as part of what he would learn in the next one. As a method, it suited an aesthetic that was more concerned with how the film looked than what it meant. But as his narratives have become more complicated, he has had to rely on more than his prodigious instinct for editing. Much of what makes his 2005 film on Elizabeth Short so unsatisfying (however laudatory his desire to tell this most sensational story in an un-sensational way) is that it relies too heavily on visual technique. She was called the "Black Dahlia," and her brutal murder and mutilation, still unsolved, has been a subject of fascination for over 60 years. (Brian de Palma made a film about it starring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson as recently as 2006.) Dawson wants to focus on her and not the grisly circumstances of her death. The problem is, unless you're already hooked on and knowledgeable about the story, you'll have no idea what *Elizabeth Short *is about.    

It is revealing in one way, though. The voice-over, written by Dawson and delivered by Ingela Aleson, refers to "the fascination of locked places and hidden things." This particular fascination is one Dawson shares. Part of it comes from his admiration for Surrealism, a style of thinking that regards the world as enigmatic and mysterious. Because things are undisclosed, the world has to be looked at--or more accurately--looked into. Almost all of Dawson's films open with someone, which includes us as viewers, peering into a keyhole to see from one place or experience into another. His world makes us voyeurs, which is sometimes a pleasurable occupation and, at other times, a dangerous one.    

The channel for looking doesn't have to be a keyhole; in *Dumb Angel*, 2007, his film of a performance by the drumming sensation Anders Erickson is seen initially through a television screen and ultimately through the dry-iced, fire-worked confines of a makeshift garage. (I see this film as a tribute to Gus Van Sant, from whom Dawson has taken a workshop, and to the origins of the garage band idea itself.) Erickson's performance is so impressive that when the camera moves and the picture wobbles, you are inclined to think he has provoked a small earthquake. In *FILM(knout)*, Johnson's face is first seen contained within a picture frame inside which we then move. What we find there is occasionally disturbing.    

This view of the unnerving "picturesque" is also how Dawson's most recent (and most ambitious) film opens. *The Last Moment,* 2007, was commissioned by the Winnipeg Film Group to celebrate its 30th anniversary; it is 28 minutes long, is shot in black and white and colour, with a cast that includes two men and a woman. Dawson has never before used three actors in one of his films, and he has never so thoroughly investigated their psychologies. The opening shot shows Nicky, played by Carson Nattrass, peering at a photograph of a beautiful woman, played by Eve Majzels. The third actor, Graham Ashmore, is The Other Man, a character who is variously a killer, a foul-mouthed but caring friend, and a religious freak, full of retributive warnings.    

Nicky's gaze at the photograph sets in motion a series of incidents, each of which presents a variation on the last moments of his life. He is both victim and victimizer, gentleman and gangster. Eve matches him as moll and muse. Each time they change personalities, the photographs and paintings on the walls of their apartment change, too. Always an image of a shapely brunette, and usually nude, they are an example of interior decoration as a scan of the mind's interior. Everything about this film, from set decoration to scripting, is a move forward for Dawson. The encouraging thing about *The Last Moment* is that instead of mining his own film history, he has scavenged through a broad range of film styles, from noir to naturalism, and from romance to thriller. In looking outside to the conventions of the history of filmmaking, Dawson has been able to unlock one of those mysterious places into which he has been so assiduously looking. As it turns out, the hidden things he is finding are the most fascinating discoveries of his young career.     

Robert Enright is the senior contributing editor to Border Crossings and holds the University Research Chair in Art Theory and Criticism at the University of Guelph.

Volume 27, Number 3: Winnipeg

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #107, published August 2008.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.