The Rape of the Sabine Women, now on view at the Henry Art Gallery, is a major video production by almost any measure. It has a cast of 20, plus six musicians and more than 700 extras. It takes as its subject the founding myth of Rome, alias Western Civilization. It made its debut, in part, on a giant Astrovision screen in the middle of Times Square. It is organized into five acts, like Shakespeare or opera. It was shot in six locations (a museum of antiquities, a fascist-style airport, a German subway train, a Greek amphitheater, a modernist house on a cliff, and a bloody meat market full of chopping butchers). And it comes bearing screensful of corporate, museum, and public funders. Its creators are an artist who calls herself "a sculptor who shoots video" (Eve Sussman, sounding like Matthew Barney, which isn't all wrong) and a troupe of attractive improvisational performers (The Rufus Corporation).
The story of the Sabine women comes from Roman historian Livy, whose account includes the sidecar tale—not found in the video—of a woman buried to death by a growing pile of irresistibly gorgeous golden shields. Sitting before this dazzling and weighty video, one empathizes. The eyes glaze under the influence of repeated seductions of color, light, scenery, bodies: perfectly coiffed 1960s housewives reclining before a giant glass sliding door overlooking the sea, in bright dressing rooms, tearing off their big-patterned period dresses in a writhing mass of men and women marinating in a fog bank. In swift cuts, present-day clarity gives way to an amber filter that lends the look of old home movies. Into the ears comes music made from knives, from coughing, from 800 people keening and wailing all at once. Wait. Stop. Stop.
A rape is a rape is a rape—well, unless you're the Sabine women. They famously came to like theirs, which is the best part of their story. They were abducted by the founders of Rome—men who had no women and hadn't succeeded in convincing non- Romans to intermarry. The men used a trick to lure the women to a public sporting event and then made off with them. Livy's account has it that the next move was not coerced seduction but a wholesale persuasion of the women, who then decided of their own free will to leave their families and culture and marry these guys. It's an S&M fantasy with a clean ending.
There's something sadistic, too, in the cold, impressive assault of this big-budget adaptation. In exchange for seriousness and beauty, the flex of a good story is lost. A paroxysmal climax implies tragedy where the myth offers reconciliation (as do subsequent interpretations, including the 1799 painting that Sussman claims as one source, Jacques-Louis David's The Intervention of the Sabine Women, a battle scene where both time and space are punctuated by the cruciform of a woman's long, bright-white arms flung wide-open between factions). Three years after their kidnapping, the women throw themselves into a battle in order to separate their fathers from their husbands, then bring the sides together. But in the video adaptation, none of the characters ever gets comfortable. They move from their tense house party—ennui is the word usually used to describe it—into the amphitheater, where in the climactic moments bodies push and pull against each other in a haze, no peace in sight.
Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, whose last video was an adaptation of Velazquez's Las Meninas, devise their performances improvisationally, collectively, freely, "organically," they sometimes say. You wouldn't know it from the tightly edited, sculpted scenes of The Rape of the Sabine Women. If there's cinema verité here, there's also a dash of Ishtar.
Thank god for slapstick. Just outside the black-box screening room where the much-talked-about The Rape of the Sabine Women plays every 90 minutes, the shorter (12- and 18-minute) videos of Guy Ben-Ner run continuously in loops. They—Moby Dick, based on the novel, and Wild Boy, based on the Truffaut film after the true story of a feral boy discovered in the French countryside—are the bumbling antistarlets of the show. They inspire love.
Both are part of a traveling exhibition of video adaptations organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. It also includes Arturo Herrera's immersive installation of black-and-white video projections of his drawings and collages set to Stravinsky's Les Noces, and Catherine Sullivan's elaborate, multiscreen presentation involving a large cast of performers, a Miami villa, the text of an e-mail scam, figure skating, and (maybe) all of theater history. By contrast, Ben-Ner acts like an old-time entertainer: He asks little and delivers much.
His gifts turn out to feel the truest partly because he creates no illusions. Channeling silent films, he shoots videos as though modern moviemaking technology—maybe even moviemaking itself—hasn't yet been invented. A train chugs into view in the moving pictures of a flip book turned in the artist's hands for the benefit of his son; a ship leaves port by the slow and silly carrying of a palm tree across the video frame; the camera seesaws and a plate of food skids from one end of a table to the other to feed both father and daughter, playing sailors on a stormy ocean. In this last scene, the daughter and then the father can't help cracking up. The artist is making films with his family and about his family, and he's also raising his children on film. Every scene has this doubleness or tripleness. The complexity is in their relationships, not in the editing or the costuming or sets. Production values become just values. Oh, and Queequeg the cannibal from Moby Dick? He has heart-shaped chest hair.