Black Box: Phoebe Greenberg


Editorial Review

'Greenberg' teeters between art, film

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 11, 2009

"Black Box: Phoebe Greenberg" is a strange programming addition to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's lower-level film and video screening space. For one thing, the show features a single 12-minute movie, rather than a couple of shorter works, as has been the norm. For another, the film, called "Next Floor," comes with an unusual pedigree, having taken the Best Short Film Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. That would seem to place it pretty squarely in the realm of cinema, not art.

What's more, Phoebe Greenberg didn't even make it.

That's not entirely fair. Though Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve directed it, Greenberg is listed in the film's closing credits as coming up with the work's "original idea." And she did produce the thing. Meaning that the cash to pay for it came from Greenberg's PHI, a film and music production company. Greenberg is also the founder and artistic director of Diving Horse Creations, a Montreal-based theater and contemporary art space. Which seems to place the movie right back in the art world.

"Next Floor" actually exists comfortably in each realm.

As art, the movie calls to mind a couple of associations with painting. Centering on a fancy dinner party that seems to be taking place in an abandoned building, "Next Floor" evokes both Dutch still lifes of food -- with its close-ups on plates of shellfish and roasted meat -- and a postmodern rendering of the Last Supper, although there are only 11 guests around this table.

Also, every time the diners take a few bites of food, the floor opens up beneath them, and the table crashes through to the next floor. Where, followed by a crew of uniformed waiters and musicians, who scurry after them down the stairwell, the diners dust themselves off.

Yes, it's a comedy, albeit a decidedly black one. The message about excessive consumption and -- gulp -- our own extinction isn't pretty. Nor is it especially understated. The film ends with a tight close-up on the eyeball of the godlike maitre d' (a glowering, bald Jean Marchand), who seems to be fixing you with an accusatory stare. That lack of subtlety -- more common to the multiplex than the museum -- is somewhat forgivable.

Except that this isn't a movie theater. Or is it?

We've come to expect a little more finesse from the Hirshhorn's Black Box fare. Even the neighboring Arthur M. Sackler Gallery's "Moving Perspectives" series of new-media works are more artsy than Hollywood-y. But perhaps there is another, subtler message to "Next Floor," beneath the one about gluttony.

Maybe it's telling us that art that sits still is over. And that the movie house -- expensive special effects and everything -- has just kicked a hole through the museum wall.