What Is Normal?—Film

For this year-end list, BOMB asked Courtney Stephens, Steve Macfarlane, Joseph Pomp, Nicholas Elliott, Eugenie Dalland, and Ken Foster to address the question: “What Is Normal?”

Part of the Looking Back series.

What Is Normal Film Final

The Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum on the BBC News, 2004. Courtesy of Barney Broomfield on Vimeo.

Courtney Stephens

The work of the political performance and culture-jamming group the Yes Men is surveyed in an exhibition at Carriage Trade Gallery in Chinatown through March 27, 2022. Best known for their works of corporate subterfuge (members of the group have publicly impersonated spokesmen from the NRA, WTO, Dow Chemical, and elsewhere), the exhibition contains everything from fake business cards (Unilever employee Mork Bortslopp’s card is framed next to Bank of Scotland’s Robert Bruce LaBruce), to an inflatable personal apocalyptic survival pod called The SurvivaBall (“even if everyone else is dying…”), to documentation of smaller pranks (as when the group bought G.I. Joes and Barbies, switched their voice boxes, and planted them in toy stores, so that the Barbies screamed, “ATTACK!!!!” and the GI Joes intoned, “Will you marry me?”). Following two years of begrudging dependence on mainstream media outlets, online retailers, and pharmaceutical companies, and amid the ongoing polar inversion in which the Right has become the anti-establishment party manque, surveying the Yes Men’s mode of harsh and hilarious leftist satire felt like a call for a return to normal and necessary disobedience.  

Courtney Stephens was most recently interviewed by Mathilde Walker-Billaud for BOMB.

Steve Macfarlane

Does a tweet count as an art experience? In July I posted:

love slowly witnessing everyone’s creeping, doomed realization that The Vibe Is Off in NYC this summer

I deleted it about thirty-six hours later, but by then the sentiment had gone viral, mushroomed, attracted some of the brightest lights of blue-check media twitter and the wannabe-fascist Dimes Square intelligentsia (kill me). After more than thirteen years living in New York City, this was my most visible and popular work—not, of course, the dozens of marginal films I programmed or tens of thousands of words of criticism I had written. It was a reaction to the expectation, by then faded but not wholly disabused, that the summer of ‘21 would be a roaring bacchanal of free love and vaccinated sex—remember, this was pre-Delta, pre-Omicron. 

If the vibe was ever “on,” it was probably the preceding summer, when we exited quarantine to return to the public square after the police murder of George Floyd, yet another innocent man murdered by the state simply for being Black. If the pandemic had any silver lining, this was it: millions risking the virus to agitate for a better world, fully apprised that their lives (and what they chose to do with them) still mattered. The year 2021 was deflating in equal proportion. Somewhere along the line it became okay for things, necessarily compromised by recent history, to be recognized as not-normal: life changes, holidays, dinners, dates, public events. In the United States, at least, we are now approaching a full quarter-century of pretending we are tilting toward a return to a “normal” that never existed for all but a blissfully ignorant sliver of people.

Steve Macfarlane most recently interviewed Fabrice Aragno for BOMB.

Kenneth Anger, Kustom Kar Kommandos, 1956. Courtesy of Francisco J. Gonzalez-Miranda on Vimeo.

Joseph Pomp

I’d missed few places as much as the Maya Deren Theater at Anthology Film Archives and jumped at the chance to return to it one Saturday afternoon in August to see a program of Kenneth Anger shorts screening as part of the Essential Cinema series—going strong for half a century! Rediscovering the rockabilly rhythms of Scorpio Rising and luxuriating for the first time in the stately gardens of Eaux d’Artifice were ecstatic moments surpassed only by the forgotten high of being in a packed house of familiar, albeit masked, faces. Hats off to the programmers for sending us back out into the sun with the chichi ditty Kustom Kar Kommandos: “I want a dream lover / So I don’t have to dream alone,” sing the Paris Sisters, before their drum beat gives way to a whirring carburetor. 

Joseph Pomp most recently interviewed Rada Jude for BOMB.

Nicholas Elliott

I didn’t set foot in a movie theater from March 2020 to May 2021, a change in behavior so radical that if the habit curtailed had been heroin I would probably be dead. The feeling of return really started when Film at Lincoln Center showed Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. Definitely not normal. Three of the movies were free of charge, and still practically no one was there. And the theater experience had become so exotic that I surrendered to the films with a euphoria totally disproportionate to their quality. By the time of the New York Film Festival, it was the social electricity in the soft October evenings that made me giddy. People I had forgotten existed emerged from the line to remind me I loved them. Familiar patterns like skipping meals to see more movies, lingering on the sidewalk to find out what everyone thought, and crossing Central Park with the murmur of films in my ear were filled with an uncanny passion. We had been hungry. Speaking of which: There was no eating in the theaters. A few minutes into the screening of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco, a quiet film that largely unfolds in the detailed hush of a cave in Calabria, my attention was drawn to sporadic but insistent crinkling. I located the source four seats away. The man’s hand was hidden beneath his coat, and whenever there was a slight spike in the movie’s volume, he lifted a treat to his mouth. The heat of my outrage came with the familiar soul-searching about whether to hiss at the guy and disturb everyone else or sit with the anger, allowing the affront to cinema and the collective experience. I’ve always seethed at people disregarding the presence of others by waving cell phones or loudly munching popcorn while a voice onscreen recounts a genocide, for instance; but what was at stake in the fall of 2021 was more than the sanctity of a dark room for appreciating the moving image. Not eating in theaters was a contract we entered into to protect each other. Il Buco was a good film, but what I thought about when I crossed Central Park that night was the man’s gumdrop transgression. Was his selfishness normal or abnormal? Are we in this together or not?   

Nicholas Elliott most recently interviewed Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese for BOMB.

Will Liverman performing "Bend, Don't Break" in a dress rehearsal for Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Metropolitan Opera, 2021–22. Courtesy of Richard Paradise on Vimeo.

Eugenie Dalland

Normal—what’s normal? Outside of a statistical context like measuring your blood pressure (though bias is no doubt present there too), I’m not sure how much good it does us. It certainly doesn’t help the creative act. I had the honor of interviewing the great jazz musician Terence Blanchard after seeing his spectacular opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Met, and something he said really stuck. When you—the artist—are searching for the next thing in your work, “You have to throw your fears away. We’re always trying to find a comfort zone of what feels good, what’s familiar to us. But that just becomes boring, because you end up doing the same thing all the time.” I’d been thinking about how god-awful it sometimes (always) is to write, because it’s so uncomfortable not knowing where an impulse is leading you. You have to surrender yourself to it, and that’s terrifying. “Fear can guide you,” he continued, “and keep you away from interesting areas of creativity.” The proverbial lightbulb went on in my head when he said this. Pushing yourself past what is comfortable to you, what is familiar to you, what is normal to you, is a critically important step in the creative process. It makes you realize the abundance of possibilities that lie at your fingertips—the beauty of the world—when you stop taking things for granted.

Eugenie Dalland most recently reviewed Chris McKim’s Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker for BOMB.

Ken Foster

If 2020 taught us all the ways in which the arts can connect us remotely, 2021 was a reminder—perhaps tentatively—that the power of the arts comes not just from our own individual relationship and response to work, but also in observing and feeling the response of others. When museums like MoMa and the Whitney cracked their doors open to limited capacities, a part of me was overjoyed to see new exhibitions and revisit old favorites from my childhood without having to peer over anyone’s shoulder. The Whitney’s Vida Americana, still on view at the start of the year, reminded me of the political power of public art, while MoMa’s Donald Judd and the current Alexander Calder exhibition demonstrated how scale and depth can never be conveyed via a flat screen. But I had enough self-reflection: I wanted to get back to the part where I could watch you watching things. 

By fall we were back in theaters, with audiences so primed for a shared experience that we may have been a bit too audible from behind our masks at Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over when it became the first new dramatic production to open in a Broadway theater. But what joy finally to be able to feel the hum of a live audience sitting together in the dark! The New York Film Festival took a risk by insisting that their 2021 schedule would be one hundred percent in person. The risk paid off with shoulder-to-shoulder audiences—masked and vaxxed—falling under the spell of one of the festival’s strongest lineups in memory. From the grotesque Titane to the terrifying Prayers for the Stolen and sublime Petit Maman, it was thrilling to be a part of the crowd again, as we recoiled in delighted disgust, gasped in fear, or simply sat together in rapt silence, considering what might be next.     

Ken Foster most recently interviewed Heidi Ewing for BOMB.

What Sustained Us: Film
A flashing gif of a text graphic that says "What Sustained Us"
What Sustained Us: Film
A flashing gif of a text graphic that says "What Sustained Us"

For this particularly challenging year, we’ve asked Garrett Bradley, Courtney Stephens, Alex Strada, Ephraim Asili, Nicholas Elliott, Mary Lucier, Tania Cypriano, Alan Licht, and Nina Menkes to tell us what sustained them.

Bifurcated Fictions: Jessica Anthony Interviewed by Annie Liontas
Enter The Aardvark4

A satirical novel about a craven millennial politician and a taxidermist in search of souls.

Protest Drawings by Steve Mumford
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