Unsilenced Film Stills
The Images and Words of Carrie Mae Weems
Courtesy of Portland art museum
Quentin Tarantino's Django doesn't have much to say. "Django. The 'd' is silent," is the only notable line spoken by the title character of Django Unchained in the entire film. Tarantino notoriously crafts verbal icons through conversation—say "Royale with cheese" just the right way, almost 20 years after Pulp Fiction's release, and the distinctly American brand of naiveté exhumed by Vincent Vega still comes to mind. Despite the director's aim to create a black western hero through Django Unchained, German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz speaks the film's memorable words, including the pivotal "Sorry, I couldn't resist"; Django relies on wrought expressions and sunglassed glares, leaving the conversation to everyone around him.
Westerns are about stories, and while Django Unchained ambitiously uses its genre to tell Django's story, his incompleteness as a character means his potential as a memorable cinematic hero is never realized. The movie strongly conveys the idea of revenge while weakly absolving the absence of a black western antihero in movie history. Underrepresentation in works of art is never simple to address, but Django's underdeveloped personality highlights Tarantino's failure to fully execute the task he began. Photographer and video artist Carrie Mae Weems creates work much in the same vein of presenting the unrepresented. In contrast to Django, her retrospective of more than 200 works at the Portland Art Museum attests to the power of a story fully told.
Three Decades of Photography and Video is worth seeing, if only to experience Weems's two strongest photographic series—The Kitchen Table Series (1990) and From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96)—in full. Standing alone in their own galleries, these works naturally read like expanded books, splayed open and stretched into single threads around the walls, so we cannot look away. Kitchen Table Series in particular benefits from being seen as a complete series of 14 scenes, as opposed to one or two in isolation.
Inspired by "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay on Hollywood's consistent objectification of women, Weems's square gelatin silver prints and her accompanying text panels present images of Weems at various points in a relationship. Each moment, despite its delicate stillness as a photograph, is also complicated enough to feel like a scene in a film. Merging inner monologues with cultural references that include familiar song lyrics, racist jokes, and childhood sayings, the story fluctuates between domestic challenges and strings of esoteric musings:
He wasn't working and she was, but ends meeting, ha! She felt like she was walking through a storm, like she was in a lonesome graveyard, like she had many rivers to cross, like making a way out of no way was her fate in life...
In the images, Weems's character portrays expressions of affection, agony, weariness, ecstasy, and directness, ending with the last word and a game of solitaire. Unlike Django, her motivations are those of a fully formed person—complicated by the history and relationships embedded within the things we say and do. As viewers, we have a physical seat at Weems's table through the camera's position. We observe from a strange vantage somewhere between the voyeur and the houseguest, immersed in densely layered details rather than a dramatic narrative. The stories of the kitchen table cover common ground but together construct an honest, flawed female lead who confronts us with her point of view, without hesitation.
Weems's more recent photographic series Slow Fade to Black (2010–11) reverses the method of The Kitchen Table Series, removing details instead of complicating them, to reveal a missing history. The artist obscures publicity photos of 14 famous African American female performers, most to the brink of unrecognizability, referencing their diminished presence in cultural memory over time. While initially it seemed contrived to envision a time when Billie Holiday and Nina Simone would be forgotten, the fading icons evoked a strange impulse I once had to purchase every commemorative magazine that came out when Michael Jackson died. Despite the fact that he was famous enough to crash the entire internet with his passing, I had an inexplicable feeling that he would eventually be forgotten. Standing before Weems's fading wall of fame, this concern didn't seem as far-fetched, given how easily Jackson's role in changing the way American popular culture regards black musicians was forgotten as soon as he went off the deep end in the '90s.
Slow Fade to Black's rosy, blurring forms project an air of sentimentality tempered by a solemnness, similar to the one that follows the Oscars' "In Memoriam" montage, which never fails to be genuinely sad and also never fails to overlook seemingly unforgettable stars outside the mainstream.
Slow Fade to Black visualizes the fickleness of a cultural memory that often sidesteps questions of race and class, creating an estranged history that is inaccurate and incomplete. Carrie Mae Weems creates objects with voices and stories so moving that they refuse to fade into silence; Django is most troubling because his silence parallels the way iconic people of color are so often left out of historical accounts and references, when the film's intention was to contribute a new icon to cultural consciousness. We are fortunate Carrie Mae Weems visualizes and recounts so much that has been left out, but it is up to the rest of us to continue her pursuit in a way that does not fade over time.