All My Exorcisms Have Failed: Notes on a Few Angelo Madsen Minax Works
by Steve Reinke
1 Spoken, Unspoken, Unsayable
At the River fades into a view of a canopy of old hardwood trees, the camera slowly spinning as the camera-person walks through the forest. We hear the sound of footsteps and throat-clearing, but the first words come from off-screen: “Its oak, oak tree.” The camera moves down to earth and we see a middle aged man continue to talk and slowly approach. “Hemlock, hemlock is so soft. Feel how soft the hemlock is.” The man—père Minax—talks about the ecosystem in an old-fashioned dad way: calm facts given with a distant cordiality that might pass, under the right circumstances, for some kind of intimacy. It is a quiet, bucolic scene, lasting about 2 of the video’s 10 minutes, though it does have an ominous edge. The taller trees are blocking the sun, choking out the birch. And the forest is empty of animal life.
The second and longest of the video’s three acts documents an afternoon in their house. There’s talk of batteries and generators, and the river looks ominously high; the family seem to be preparing for a storm or flood (or both). Minax documents a family squabble (money, alcoholism, probation violations) as frozen hamburger patties sizzle and the truck is loaded for evacuation. The protracted squabble is caught largely on audio (we follow with subtitles). Minax has removed himself from the proceedings. He mostly hangs out with the kids who are doing their best to ignore the adult world. The camera only occasionally documents mom and sis, the primary combatants. At one point—the only time Minax is really present or active—he intervenes in a nephew wanting to play with the camera. They discuss big boy toys and who is a big boy. Laughter releases the tension.
At this point, the video seems to be a particular kind of observational documentary: one in which the director is a participant but uses the camera as a kind of removal mechanism, an apparatus to escape and observe from a safe position, a position that, in this case, refuses to engage in the family squabbles. (I was trying to think of work in this mode, I was trying to remember Richard Billingham’s name and I googled “British family drunk photographer” and the top three results were indeed Billingham.)
But, of course, there are no innocent vantage points, no stable positions, no simple subjectivities in Minax’s work, which is marked by a playful, restless intelligence that uses a wide variety of strategies, techniques, approaches, voices. And this is borne out in the third act of At the River, which serves as much more than just the lyrical coda (or space for healing) it might initially appear to be. There are no characters in most of this section, though I like to imagine that the rest of the family have evacuated and Minax is left behind for a family-free 4th of July. Instead, we leave the banal external world of the domestic documentary and enter a lyrical space, which is simultaneously internal/psychic and external/phenomenological: plunged into water, empty beaches, fireworks, solarized forest images, layered soundtrack. We are both in a “real” space: documentation of a particular 4th of July—and in a constructed representation of a fictional space which may be at times symbolic (water as purifier) at other times expressionistic (though in fairly subtle ways, particularly considering what Minax does in some other works). It ends with a return of the father (in v/o) telling—in stark contrast to his earlier talk about trees, though with the same flat affect—a story of his spiritual healing kissing Jesus’s wounds. (But still the forest is empty of birds, squirrels, weasels, all animals.)
Minax describes the video as having a tension between “what is spoken and what is unspoken”—and this is certainly true. But what Madsen means by the unspoken is not in regard to the things one is merely unable or unwilling to express, but to a larger force: “the unspoken looms like its own force of nature.” This is perhaps not the unspoken, but that which lies outside of—or exceeds—language altogether. It is this very category—not the unspoken, but the unsayable—that Minax returns to, trying to avoid, or to complicate, the Romantic conflation of the transcendent with the unsayable.
2 Distributed Agency
If At the River is rooted in—and extends—a certain kind of observational documentary, then The Eddies is a radical take on the performative documentary. There are two Eddies. One takes Minax on a tour of the underground tunnels of Memphis. The other answers a Craig’s List personal ad to be filmed masturbating with a firearm, who asks Minax to join, the latter who explains that he is trans and has a different kind of penis. Eddie #2 is fine with that, and they have a fine, sweet time. In the third act (the first two acts are intercut) Minax is back at home, in bed, looking sad, bathed in a large video projection of Freddie Mercury performing “Somebody to Love”.
In performative documentary, as well as in artists’ video in general, the director/artist often occupies multiple positions. They can simultaneously be the subject in front of the camera, the narrator providing voice over (either simultaneously or retrospectively with the on-camera events), and the authorial force that hovers timelessly over all aspects of the project and may seem to determine meaning (implied author). Though a more thorough analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, I’d like to outline some of the subject positions Minax occupies in the video.
Although there is no authorial v/o in The Eddies, Minax does employ on-screen text in a sly, playful voice. In the first instance, the narrator asserts that “Eddie #1 chooses what to tell me. And what not to tell me.” But Eddie is being a straightforward, factual tour guide, so by raising this unfounded concern—that Eddie #1 may be leaving things out intentionally—we begin to doubt our narrator, the Minax of the first-person titles. Let’s call that position 1, the closest thing we have to an omniscient narrator, speaking retrospectively, but also unreliably.
A later title: “Eddie #2 didn’t mind that I insisted on calling him ‘Eddie #2’.” Well, that seems wrong. In the documentation of the encounter, the on-screen Minax doesn’t refer to him as Eddie #2, and there would be no reason for him to do so. What the title does is emphasize two contradictory subject positions: the Minax in the scene, documenting his interaction (let’s call that subject position 2) who has no inclination or reason to call him “Eddie #2”, and the slyly unreliable narrator of position 1, who has reason to make him play the role of Eddie #2.
A similar split is suggested by another title: “In the caverns, Eddie #1 tells me things that I will never remember.” The I who will not remember is subject position 2. Subject position 1 will remember: he has the tapes. The subjects occupying each position thus have completely different relationships to sensation, memory, agency.
There is also a passive Minax, an object whose only activity is to absorb media, mostly war movies with pro-conservative values. This is subject position 3: a character, a performance. This activity suggests a narrative reason for Minax’s interest in the libidinal qualities of firearms, but also the causality short-circuits.
In the third act, a different subject position emerges: a hybrid of 2 and 3. This integrated Minax has some agency (he can return the camera’s gaze, he has projected the media onto himself, rather than passively viewing it). And, as always, we have the implied artist—an unstable, powerful force—constructed from the interactions between the previous 4 subject positions.
- Narrator of titles (unreliable, playful, retrospective)
- Active Minax (behind the camera, direct agency, in the moment)
- Passive Minax (in front of the camera, passive, acting a narrative role)
- Integrated Minax
- Implied Author/Artist
3 How to Draw a Tremor / Live Nude Genitals
One last quick note on The Eddies. Intimacy is difficult, as are genitals and documents of unexpected sexual encounters. (Vulnerability is easy). There are many amazing things about the encounter between Minax and Eddie #2. Not the least that it is entirely positive, sweetly life affirming (abject sex is easy). It helps that the visuals are limited to Eddie #2’s headless body and fine cock, and that Eddie is verbal enough to paint a picture for us of the images we are denied. (I’m not sure what I’m saying here, but felt compelled to say something). It is, to quote Jennifer Doyle, “a scene in which the pleasures of representing sex outstrip the epistemological drive to figure sex out.”
4 Wet Dog / Dry God
The Source Is a Hole is a video essay, a great video essay. The excellence of the writing, and Minax’s performance of that writing, may make it seem like a predominantly literary affair, but this is not the case. The figural is the force which erodes the differences between image and text: making images (especially animations) become linear/discursive, turning text into image, spatializing in. Although often instances of linguistic metaphor and metonymy are, or could seem to be, merely illustrated graphically in the images, there are many other instances of metaphors and metonymies being produced exclusively through images (usually animations). Our impulse to prioritize verbal/linguistic meanings over visual ones should be put out to pasture.
The Source Is a Hole is also a mind-game film, like The Matrix (1999) or Inception (2010), except that The Source Is a Hole is good. (Possibly the only good main-stream thing in the genre is the HBO mini-series The Watchmen (2019). The others tend to put characters with old-fashioned senses of agency and subjectivity into overly plotty mysteries.) Other Minax works could also be viewed constructively as having some aspects of mind-game films (particularly in terms of distributed agency), especially his 2017 feature Kairos Dirt & the Errant Vacuum. I like lists, numbered lists, and so I’m ending with an excerpt from Thomas Elsaesser’s 2018 essay ‘Contingency, causality, complexity: distributed agency in the mind-game film’:
Twelve key features of mind-game films: (1) multiple universes, (2) multiple temporalities, (3) causality between coincidence and conjunction, (4) feedback: looped and retroactive causalities, (5) mise-en-abyme constructions, (6) the observer as part of the observed, (7) living with contradictions, (8) imaginary resolutions no longer dissolve real contradictions, (9) antagonistic mutuality under conditions of distributed agency, (10) agency—with the self, against the self, (11) time travel films as black boxes and (12) the mind-game film as pharmakon. Ultimately, mind-game films amplify ontological instability and dismantle both the sovereign subject and its antidote, the divided self of modern subjectivity, in view of accepting more complex but also self-contradictory, more limited but also more extended forms of agency.