Until quite recently, most screenings of experimental film had a problem. For many viewers -- even some dedicated lovers of contemporary art -- they were about as much fun as watching a sliced apple turn brown. The experience hasn't changed that much: In terms of plot and action, aging fruit still beats most experimental films. What's changed over the past decade or so is that more people find pleasure in such glacial works of art. They're regularly sold in galleries, shown in museums and touted by critics.
An almost static film installation called "Rheinmetall/Victoria 8" at the 303 Gallery in Chelsea is a high point among the art now showing in New York.
"Rheinmetall" is the latest work of Vancouver artist Rodney Graham, a favorite of the cognoscenti for some years and now the subject of a touring retrospective that should spread his name more widely. Graham's installation consists of a vintage 35mm movie projector -- an enormous, Italian-made Victoria 8 -- that sits in the middle of a darkened gallery and shines an 11-minute loop of black-and-white footage onto a nearby wall. For much of the loop, all we get to see are a series of static close-ups of an old portable typewriter, made in the 1930s and bearing the stylish logo of a German firm called Rheinmetall.
Graham found the machine in mint condition in a Vancouver junk shop, and it's a beauty: Sheet metal has been stamped into aerodynamic, Studebaker curves and then painted a glossy black. It marks a watershed in the history of industrial design, when the simplifications of avant-garde art were first married to the new technologies of mass production. The pairing produced a streamlined style that proclaimed itself to be identifiably, aggressively modern. Though the typewriter may not be a famous piece, and it is long since obsolete, it stands in for an entire design movement that is worthy of the kind of concentration that we usually give fine art.
Graham's installation encourages just that kind of close attention.
One of the striking things about Graham's piece, and others like it, is that it has an intensity that still photographs, even projected as a slide show, never have. Graham's typewriter footage compels us to focus on it in a way that its still equivalents never quite do, however similar they might seem at first. Despite the lack of visible motion in Graham's shots, the flicker of the moving picture, accompanied by the clatter of the projector, tells us that time is passing -- that this isn't a momentary, shutter-snap glimpse of an object that invites us to look, then look away, but a long, hard, contemplative stare. With still photography, we know that the picture will not change, and that we can always return to it; with even the most static shot on film, we know there's the ever-present possibility, at least, that something may take place, and that we'll miss it if we blink.
There's a very special magic wrapped up in film that Graham can take advantage of to make a humble object potent. Graham's 35mm loop and the impressive old equipment that projects it evoke an entire history of feature film, from "Intemperance" to "Casablanca" to "Schindler's List," that inevitably rubs off on his banal subject matter. In our movie-filled imaginations, the sweep of the typewriter's innocent black frame becomes the fender of a Mercedes sedan, as the Gestapo swoops in for the kill. (The connection isn't arbitrary: Rheinmetall was, and is, a major supplier of armaments to the German military; according to its Web site, the company went into office equipment only between the two world wars, when the Treaty of Versailles briefly shut down the German war machine.)
In the confined space of the gallery, the typewriter looms in front of us at many times its actual size, giving it an almost operatic presence. In classic film noir, this kind of steady focus on an object always means it plays some kind of crucial role in the unfolding plot. In Graham's work, any hint of plot has been excised, but the force of the lingering close-up remains. In fact, now that Graham has transferred the close-up into the realm of art, its power is magnified: A device that was part of the hidden artifice of film, originally meant to go unnoticed by an audience engrossed in story line, now takes on a starring role.
And then, in his loop's second half, Graham works to neutralize the square-jawed drama he has set up. White flakes begin to float into his scene, until at last the typewriter almost disappears from view under a drift.
Like the click of the projector, the gently falling powder marks the time that's passing as we watch the film, made visible now as well as audible as darkness slowly gives way to light. And the fake snow injects an appropriate note of Hollywood sentiment, even manipulation, into the piece. Graham's elegy to dead technologies is full of bittersweet nostalgia, so it's only fitting that, as steel gets hidden under snow, Rheinmetall becomes Rosebud.
Rodney Graham's "Rheinmetall/Victoria 8" runs through June 19 at 303 Gallery, 525 W. 22nd St., New York. Call 212-255-1121 or visit www.303gallery.com. Graham's retrospective, now at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, heads to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art later this summer, then to Vancouver, B.C., and then to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in the fall of 2005.
For more of Blake Gopnik's reviews, in print and on video, please visit www.washingtonpost.com/gopnik.