In The Kodachrome Memoirs, a Man Goes Quietly
His name is Andrew. He's the subject of The Kodachrome Memoirs, an "experimental documentary"—part performance, part film—created by local filmmakers Jason Ryan and Nelson Harst. Besides these facts, we know very little about him. Not long after a screening in January, Andrew called Ryan. Having somehow gotten wind of the project, he introduced himself, before suddenly being cut off. He never called back.
His presence is similarly elusive throughout The Kodachrome Memoirs, in which he is represented solely by his castoffs: close to a thousand color slides and hours of audiocassette field recordings that Andrew abandoned when he moved out of his U-District apartment several years ago. And since he never called back, Andrew is apparently willing to cede his life's belongings in exchange for an odd sort of anonymity. Ryan and Harst, meanwhile, have no intention of learning anything more about the mysterious man at the core of their project. Their film perches on the edge of exploitation.
It all started in 2004, when Ryan, who worked at a movie theater, was asked by his boss to clean out an abandoned apartment in a nearby building owned by the theater. Inside, Ryan discovered the slides and tapes, and, mystified, took them home. He and Harst wove the material into a kind of biographical narrative, albeit with a gaping hole at its center, because the man whose story they mean to relate is never more than a phantom.
"The film begins and ends in darkness," notes Harst, and indeed the first several minutes consist of images of fireworks, neon signs, and the glare of city streets at night. Snapshots taken from road trips around the U.S. come next, followed by portraits of children, a maybe-girlfriend and several recurring characters. The film ends with more abstract images of digital LCD screens, workbenches, fluorescent lamps, and close-ups of other random objects leading back to darkness and fireworks. We might read this narrative as a circle of life, a nifty way to bring structure to an otherwise arbitrary story.
We learn a few things about Andrew. He took trips around the U.S. He learned to fly an airplane. He liked night photography. He had some very silly friends. His slides, however, hint at a deeper, artistic sensibility highlighted by Ryan and Harst's mediation. They've said in interviews that they believe Andrew's photographs and recordings have artistic value in their own right, and The Kodachrome Memoirs emphasizes this conviction. Clever juxtapositions, repetition of common images, and an arty soundtrack pulled from the recordings are designed to draw out the creative impulse behind one man's personal effects. Yet there is no reason to believe that the man who took these slides or made these recordings considered them to be artistic. In the final analysis, Ryan and Harst's manipulation of the material is total.
As a documentary, The Kodachrome Memoirs fails to retain even a shred of objectivity. Sure, Ryan and Harst use slide projectors to screen their film and do not significantly alter the source material. Yes, they make it clear that their appropriation of another man's images is a means of promoting not only their own creativity, but their unknown subject's as well. But these considerations come second to the true questions the project raises: To whom does this work belong? Whose story is it? What would Andrew say if he saw it? It feels voyeuristic to watch scenes from a man's life pass by without him being in the room. Not even the documentary that was recently made about the making of The Kodachrome Memoirs, which will be screened along with the piece, brings us any closer to Andrew. The desire to know more is never satisfied, which makes the project all the more enticing.
Because The Kodachrome Memoirs fails as a documentary, it succeeds as art. The film is thought provoking and awkward, captivating and strange. In creating it, Ryan and Harst have turned one man's trash into their own personal treasure. By taking Andrew out of the picture, they have made him into a work of art.