The Imaginarium of Slater Bradley by Talon Gustafson
A review of
Slater Bradley and Ed Lachman: Shadow
Whitney Museum of American Art

Slater Bradley's new short film, Shadow, isn't as complicated as he'd like it to be. He's still using his look-a-like, and he's still dealing with youthful, self-destructive icons but this time his muse, River Phoenix, isn't as easily recognizable as say, Kurt Cobain. And so, much of what was interesting about his previous work (people looking like other people), is instantly not at play in Shadow. To watch the film, unaided by the curator's explanation – you'd think Richard Long made a spaghetti western. That analogy makes it sound much better than it is. Shadow is a prologue to the unfinished film Dark Blood (1993) starring River Phoenix. Since Dark Blood was never released (the director owns rights to the footage) I wasn't able to watch it. But according to the Whitney:

"In the film, River Phoenix plays a disturbed, young, half–Navajo widower who lives like a hermit near a nuclear testing site in the Nevada desert, waiting for the apocalypse and making kachina dolls that he believes have magic powers. Phoenix’s character’s wife died from radiation poisoning from the site. A married couple becomes stranded when their car breaks down in the desert and they are rescued by the widower, who falls in love with the woman. The film progresses to a dramatic ending in which the young man dies, but because of Phoenix’s own untimely death, the final scenes were never filmed."

Shadow is a collaboration between Bradley and Dark Blood cinematographer, Ed Lachman and the film is based on Lachman's memories and impressions of filming Dark Blood seventeen years prior. Bradley and Lachman create a prologue that imagines the widower's life just before he meets the couple.

The film opens with a 30-something man, dressed in Indiana Jones-attire, exploring a bleak desert landscape. A dog follows. He does a lot of walking. He walks into an abandoned trailer. He walks into an old bar. He walks at night over desolate hills. He walks in the day, past austere rock formations. Ben Brock, the actor, is trying. He delivers his lines with his best David Carradine–squint, but he comes across like a Chelsea gallerist doing Jeff Bridges in True Grit. Luckily, art-goers are forgiving, or at least used to, questionable acting.

Lachman's influence is evident. The camera-work anchors the protagonist's wanderings and movies such as Wim Wender's Paris, Texas and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man come to mind. Stationary shots allow the figure to walk in and out of frame, backward into the austere landscape and forward past the screen. Lachman is adept at his craft (academy award-nominated) but the cinematography isn't enough to carry the film. There is not much to carry. Nevertheless we are encouraged by the curator to be observant:

"Although it contains references to what takes place in the original film (now the future) and is haunted by Phoenix’s ghostly presence, major elements of the original—the couple, the car breaking down, the attraction of the widower to the woman—do not appear in Bradley and Lachman’s film, and parts of their story—the little girl, the deserted house, the bar—do not appear in the original. The two narratives are woven together by threads of fact and fiction whose boundaries are never made clear."

Definitely not clear–Dark Blood is unreleased. How am I to know any references at all? Is the Playboy magazine Brock burns, in the original movie? Don't know. Or did the Playboy belong to River Phoenix? Don't know. Is Brock wearing the same clothes that Phoenix wore in Dark Blood? Don't know. Was this scene cut from Dark Blood? Don't know. It's like playing "which one doesn't belong?" –with only one thing. What's the point?

If you are privy to what Slater Bradley looks like, then you are supposed to be wowed by actor Ben Brock's uncanny likeness to the artist. And to be fair, they do look alike, but so do a lot of people. The term Doppleganger, is used often when talking about Slater Bradley's use of Ben Brock. But the sensation that is evoked by seeing a Doppleganger, only happens in the first person and when it happens it's an out-of-body experience. Seeing another you, that you somehow know is you, (ie not an actor playing you) challenges your notion that your conscience is contained by your body. It's a different sensation then when you see a person who looks like another person. That sensation is called sorta weird, and is much less interesting to hang a body of work on. Bradley has taken his most obvious influence, Cindy Sherman, too literally. When talking about her process Sherman said "most of it just looks like–I recognize myself all the time and so I edit, edit, edit and finally I see the one that looks like somebody else, or something else and that's the one that works." When Bradley hires an actor to play himself, he takes away the possibility of looking like someone else–it is someone else. His concept becomes "This person looks like me" which closes off the identity-play that Sherman investigates. In Untitled Film Stills, Sherman cleverly avoids the burden of looking like a specific celebrity from a specific movie. Instead, she plays off of cinematic cliché's. The photos looks familiar but they are unidentifiable, allowing the viewer to believe in the fictive space. By keeping it ambiguous, Sherman gives herself the wiggle room to become anyone. Reenacting a real scene from real movie would result in a game of compare and contrast. How much does she look like the actress? How well did she pull it off? This is where Shadow gets lost. We are set up to make comparisons that are either obvious; Brock doesn't look or act like Phoenix, or impossible; Dark Blood is unavailable as a reference to compare against.

With none of Bradley's Sherman-identity-play effectively at work, we are left with a dismal fan film; like Lord of the Rings: The Hunt for Gollum – except less sincere. Bradley is trying to expand his "doppleganger" body of work with Shadow, but instead, he takes a step backward into territory that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus already explored, when Heath Ledger died. Shadow becomes a pedestrian, clip about a guy and his dog. What we usually hear about Bradley is that he continues and complicates the postmodern practices of Cindy Sherman. Continues – yes. Complicates – simplifies?

Still from Shadow

Still from Shadow

Still from Shadow

Slater Bradley, I Hate Myself and Want to Die

Still from Deadman

Still from Paris,Texas

Slater Bradley

Actor Ben Brock

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #48, 1979

Ledger's replacements in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus