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Stan Douglas

Serpentine Gallery, London, UK

As any anthropologist or movie mogul will tell you, there are only a handful of stories in the world. The newest narrative will owe something to time-worn tales and if there's a common thread to the three films screened at Stan Douglas' Serpentine show, it's that they're all haunted by older, dustier texts. While his acclaimed Der Sandmann (1995) draws Sigmund Freud and E. T. A. Hoffman into its dandelion-clock rotation, the ghostly dual projection of Le Détroit (2000) is rooted in 19th-century urban folk tales. Premiered here, Journey into Fear (2001) sees Douglas swap his previous works' elegiac elegance for something more urgent. Although sections of its dialogue are lifted from Herman Melville's The Confidence Man (1857), the piece takes its name and premise from a 1940s gun-running movie, remade in 1975 as an oil-smeared financial thriller. There's a lot of water between Melville's paranoid parable and the politics of petroleum, between war-torn Europe and the sunny Vancouver dockyards Douglas snaps in his accompanying photographs. But if there are only a handful of stories in the world then, like a bad penny, the one about greed will always turn up.

Superficially, Douglas' film is pure Hollywood: a guy, a girl, a dramatic location and the usual scent of sex and violence. The guy is Möller, employed to guard a container ship's precious freight. His foil is Graham, a pilot retained to steer the vessel through stormy waters and ensure its punctual arrival. Möller and Graham inhabit a 15-minute drama divided into four scenes: two breathy chase sequences on the rain-splattered deck and two fractious face-offs inside Graham's wood-panelled quarters. So far, so shipshape - until we begin to consider the soundtrack. Douglas input 20 taped slices of dialogue into a computer, which then plays them in random clumps over the scenes shot in Graham's cabin. The duration of the 625 combinations of the protagonists' conversation is 157 hours. Douglas' dislocation of sound and visuals means that Möller's words rarely synch with his bratwurst-thick lips, but it's a discord that chimes perfectly with the darkly abstract deal at the story's centre.

Möller's proposition is that Graham should delay the container ship's arrival, which will cause a seismic shift on the stock exchange that will earn his unnamed clients $75 million. The reluctant Graham can either take a cut of the profits, or it's 'man overboard'. This kind of fiscal chaos theory has preoccupied recent American fiction, with Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen running their fingers along the invisible cords connecting individuals and the global market. But while DeLillo and Franzen seem confident that literary conventions can support a swipe at laissez-faire capitalism, Douglas is a bit more suspicious of his chosen medium. Perhaps film's shiny illusions are a little too close to the business of buying and selling, its narratives too tied up with absolution through material things. There are ways through this though, and by denying us cinema's standard comforts (beginnings, endings, neatly packaged answers) Journey into Fear travels uneasy waters.

Möller and Graham constantly debate value and truth. Flicking through some papers on Graham's desk, Möller discovers Graham has been investing in gold. 'Gold is the false idol,' he says to her, 'it's over.' Möller's faith is in the market; anything else - pity, irony, charity, proof - is a 'barbaric relic'. Graham clings to older standards: herbal medicines and a sense of duty, maritime law and the sanctity of life. It's tempting to cast them as a thoughtful liberal and a freebooting libertarian, but these categories are sinking on Douglas' stormy seas. Turning to Möller, Graham concludes 'the Left think they know a certain truth. The Right think they know a certain truth. But there's a grey area.' This grey uncertainty saturates Douglas' film. It's there in the protagonists' trading of unstable metaphors, their shifting morality and their shaky history (at some points it seems they're perfect strangers, at others that they're ex-lovers). We never find out if the ship docks late, if the pilot capitulates or if the supercargo kills for his share of the booty. Left only with random waves of dialogue washing over the endlessly looping reel of film, the only thing we're sure of is the capriciousness and endurance of the controlling computer programme. Indifferent to anything but its own self-perpetuation, the programme is much like the financial markets in which Möller has such confidence. The difference is that we can switch it off, walk out of the gallery and dismiss Journey into Fear as an obvious fiction. Shrugging off laissez-faire capitalism might be a little harder. 'Always work the patterns', says Möller at one point. What he doesn't realize is that the patterns are working him.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.

Issue 68

First published in Issue 68

Jun - Aug 2002
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