Credit: Automatic Moving Co.
by Morris Yang Featured Film Horizon Line

Still Film — James N. Kienitz Wilkins

September 22, 2023

Film is a collection of stills, yet rarely is film still; in the empire of the moving image, action and reaction reign supreme. But action and reaction have lapsed into haste and tedium, so the argument goes in James N. Kienitz Wilkins’ fifth feature, Still Film. Billed as an examination of “cinematic memory on the defense,” Still Film reduces the filmic consciousness to an assortment of constituent 35mm stills, culled from eighteen years’ worth of studio press kits and arranged — in the filmmaker’s words — under a logic of “associative meaning.” Brad Pitt, Jeff Goldblum, Samuel L. Jackson, and more appear sporadically, instantly recognizable not just as actors, but as their respective characters. What’s less recognizable, however, is the uncanny intimacy these images beget in the spectator: collected and arranged as such, in slide-show format, they become objects of both nostalgia and inquiry. Which is which?

Still Film also concerns itself with a deposition, imported so fuzzily into the narrative that we only hear its proceedings over the stills. In addition, Kienitz Wilkins voices all his characters; they are two lawyers, a witness, and a recordist, ostensibly engaged in calling to light the witness’ recollection of a possibly plagiarized memory. “Object to form,” one of them repeatedly protests as the deposition shifts from the legal to the frustratingly cultural. Invoking spontaneous ruminations on cinema of the nineties and noughties, whilst retaining the zing of contemporary non-sequiturs on Covid-19 and cryptocurrency, all synced to their speaker’s rapid-fire loquacity, the exchanges produce a gently alienating effect as realized by the subtle yet deeply ambiguous modulations of voice — we hear Kienitz Wilkins shifting between conspiracy theorist, cultural critic, and on occasion pithy aphorist, but retaining the gravelly constancy of a late-night podcast.

This choice of medium proves wryly attractive: essentially a one-man show, Still Film reflects on the personal significance of films as much as it confronts the industry’s broader questions of agency, authenticity, and influence. The publicity stills onscreen, for instance, were frequently captured by anonymous individuals or still photographers long forgotten (perhaps a footnote here and there); in many cases, they also did not correspond to anything in the films they purported to represent. A film made of these stills, then, accords movement to still life, reveling in the slipperiness of the looking-glass to concoct newfound impressions of heyday symbols. Its various interlocutors probe one another for the ideas and idiosyncrasies that necessarily emerge from a cultural ownership compromised by this invisible world of paraphernalia. “Nostalgia’s a liquid asset,” one claims. There’s the past upon which it operates, but also the present, and even the future: culture laid bare as ideological machinery.

Freezing this culture — that of the moving image — like Chris Marker’s La Jetée did some sixty years prior, Still Film combines visual resplendence and verbal elan to chart a flexible and invigorating dialectic of cinema and consumer. Just as Fredric Wertham’s groundbreaking study, Seduction of the Innocent, posited a specter of vice exerted by the media on society, media themselves (as Kienitz Wilkins contends) bear witness to our volatile social microcosms. This mutual relationship both mines and shirks individual testimony in its quest to unearth collective truths hitherto left to archival posterity. Kienitz Wilkins’ previous film, The Plagiarists, was made under the pseudonym “Peter Parlow”; likewise, there is a realization here that the unreliability of identity and remembrance is an inevitable symptom of the atomized modern world. And thus, the lawyers boldly declare their intention to realize the space of imagination by swapping feeling for fact: “unlike a human life, a fact can neither be created nor destroyed — it can only be discovered.” Still Film, for all its frenetic inquiry, remains a moving work of affect.

DIRECTOR: James N. Kienitz Wilkins;  CAST: —;  DISTRIBUTOR: BAM;  IN THEATERS: September 22;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 12 min.