The title of Jeff Preiss’s film STOP (1995–2012) evokes several ‘stops’. The stop-start rhythm of its rapid cuts, spatial leaps and sudden bursts of sound creates a careening, maze-like experience. It’s dizzying, the kind of thing that resists reading it from a distance. It asks instead that the viewer sit down and succumb to its relentless flux, which turns out to be an entirely appropriate pretext for a coming-of-age story.
The New York-based filmmaker’s new exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, ‘More Than I Looked For’, presents something like memory gone berserk – a pressurized eruption of moments, and someone else’s life, flashing before our eyes. Another ‘stop’ is the f-stop of Preiss’s camera, determining the size of the aperture. Like memory, the camera works by a system of inhibitors, holding the onslaught of images at bay, only allowing the relevant information to pass through.
The exhibition’s two feature-length films, STOP and 14 STANDARD 8mm REELS 1981–1988 (2018), are projected in looping succession. STOP is divided into four half-hour sections composed of 2,500 100-ft rolls of 16mm film that, while heavily edited by Preiss, stay true to their original in-camera chronology. If the light-as-air art of Jonas Mekas could be said to cast a shadow, it would loom heavily over Preiss’s work. Visually, it is a clear influence with quick cuts, portraits of friends and family and shot-from-the-hip street scenes of New York. Commingling bits of Preiss’s home, travel and work – vacations, parties, actor screen tests, openings at Orchard (the Lower East Side art space co-founded by Preiss) – STOP burns through its 16-year span with near maniacal nonchalance.
Yet always central to this runaway home movie is Preiss’s son, Isaac. Over the course of the film’s two hours we see him grow from toddler to teenager. We see him at beach parties, dentist appointments and Thanksgiving dinners. We see him hanging out with friends, zoning out in front of screens and writing in his notebook. We also gradually witness his changing gender expression. Scenes of Isaac as a teenager show him standing outside an administrative building, having just legally changed his name. Soon after, we see glimpses of his top surgery and subsequent recovery. These moments pass unceremoniously, almost subliminally. Preiss’s pace and splintering tangents leave little time for the swell of sentiment. Only by their slow-mounting excess do they begin to hum with moving drama, continuing to do so long after the film is over.
14 STANDARD 8mm REELS was assembled from 8mm film Preiss shot in the 1980s. Its images are more abstract and obscured by shadow, recalling the veiled impressionist snapshots of New York School photographer Saul Leiter. The soundtrack is also subtler, usually no more than analogue static, like the quiet crackle of a Yule log. Each of the 14 reels is dedicated to a different artist friend who appears in that section. Registering between tender homage and private correspondence, they tend to acknowledge a dimension of that particular artist’s own work. In a reel dedicated to Leslie Thornton, we glimpse the lively goings-on just outside Thornton’s storefront studio. Another, dedicated to filmmaker Peter Hutton, begins with a hypnotic shot of rippling water, a nod to Hutton’s sublime sea-and-landscape films.
Like some of the best works called ‘structuralist’, the charm of Preiss’s films lies in their failure to neatly satisfy their own program. The tangled mass of a life lived squares off against the work’s feeble form, overtaking it easily, bleeding over the edges. This continual process of building up and knocking down is one that both artists and parents know well.
STOP ends abruptly with a storm. Winds toss trees around and waves crash upon rocks. Isaac stands on a dock watching and feeling the intensity, those halcyon beach parties seen earlier now slipping away in the current. He chats with dad. He smiles. Then he gets on his bike and rides away.
Main Image: Jeff Preiss, STOP, 2012, film still. Courtesy: the artist
First published in Issue 209