Martha Colburn’s incendiary animations flickered in my mind when I took a walk along a woodsy section of Paul Revere’s famous ride over Thanksgiving weekend. Like a hallucinatory People’s History of the United States, Colburn’s recent shorts plunge the interstices of Americana for a hidden history of fanaticism and double-faced hypocrisies. Myth Labs, for instance, features cutouts of Mayflower Americans giving Bible lessons while they choke on crystal meth. Colburn’s political exorcisms are fast and furious, deriving meaning not from a cogent chain of events but rather from juxtaposition and fragmented iconography—a punk take on the "old weird America." As one of four featured artists of the Berkeley Art Museum’s Bending the Word exhibition, Colburn’s visionary (an overused adjective, but apt here) and frequently hilarious Myth Labs is playing in constant rotation in the museum gallery, but a special program at the adjoining Pacific Film Archive on December 2 offers a fuller tribute to the besieged beauty of her candy-coated color schemes, labor-intensive materiality and frenetic, unyielding stop-frames.
Rip it up and start again. Colbum’s animation style makes this post-punk ethos come alive with a spinning wheel of blithe destruction and crystalline creation. Colburn’s frames are always under construction, inchoate. Transformation is the only constant, though as pilgrims mutate into demons and fire back into sea, one doesn’t get the impression of evolution so much as carnival. One disguise gives way to another in a fluid exchange of symbols. Animation is an ideal vehicle for this wave of mutability: loosed from the ontological obligations of photographic reproduction, Colburn is free to rework and deconstruct the familiar. Pantone color samples, playing cards, and magazine detritus all do a herky-jerky dance, and Colburn’s endearing handiwork is evident in every armored still.
The surrealist bent of Colburn’s work generates blasts of insight sharp enough to puncture the idyll of Americanism. There is as much violence in her pantomimes as any Hollywood historical epic, but by emphasizing the mind-numbing ritual repetition of these bloodlettings, Colburn gives the lie to that old American standby: regeneration through violence. Almost every body comes to be resurrected, but the evangelical wish is so programmatically regurgitated that it seems more in step with the Protestant work ethic than saving grace. The violence is mundane, obsessive, and vaguely like exercise: hence Colburn’s wise decision to cast meth as the All-American fix in Myth Labs. The film’s bad infinity of treaties, sermons, and raids is tugged along by a pounding, epic musical track and a general profusion of crosses. I’m not sure I get the whole scope of Colburn’s theory of American addiction, but her damning recitation of the First Contact scene makes as strong an impression as anything in Terrence Malick’s The New World; as far as provocative countermyths go, Oliver Stone hasn’t done anything nearly so imaginative in years.
With its disquieting allusion to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and ingenious use of partially completed jigsaw puzzles, Triumph of the Wild is a blurry critique of the American penchant for worshipping wilderness in the abstract while massacring it in actual fact. It also manages to cram in an impressive retrospective of 200 years of war and captive soldiers (one is marked "PTSD"), but perhaps nothing is so prescient here as Colburn’s 2005 music video for Oakland band Deerhoof’s song "Wrong Time Capsule." The video’s theme is cash, with all denominations in for defacement, parody, and reconstruction. The collage of bills speaks to the rampant aestheticization of exchange value, but the DIY lesson is there for all to see: when the meltdown comes, make your own money.
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