An autobiographical piece of performance art with a title like Lasagna or: How I Learned to Stop Slipping Towards the Prison of Permanent Darkness should give a person pause. It sounds like a joke, a third-rate burlesque of something that crawled out of a Manhattan loft during the '80s—some solipsistic hand-wringing about sex, relationships, futility, and the cosmos. Linas Phillips's Lasagna isn't exactly that. But it isn't exactly not that, either.
A curious, complicated failure, Lasagna was made by two extraordinarily talented men: Jim Fletcher (the celebrated off-Broadway actor and Wooster Group regular who last appeared at On the Boards as Jay Gatsby in Gatz, the six-hour, word-for-word adaptation of The Great Gatsby) and Linas Phillips (the filmmaker who made Walking to Werner and Great Speeches from a Dying World, and won a Stranger Genius Award in 2007).
The piece is a conversation between Fletcher, Phillips, and a developmentally disabled character named Rimas, played by a video screen of Phillips's face with an actor (Leah Schrager) standing behind it, her head hidden, her body performing the character's awkward hand gestures. This arrangement, stuffed downstage along with another video screen, a cellist, a bed, and a computer where Phillips briefly watches porn, creates a tight little space where the three characters wring their hands about sex, relationships, futility, and the existence of aliens.
Rimas is a kind of retarded superego, scolding Phillips for masturbating too much and for his poor, flakey treatment of girlfriends. Phillips and Fletcher tell stories about their domestic lives: girlfriends and children and ex-wives. Watching Phillips and Fletcher disappear up their own assholes can be comical and starkly unflattering. (In one apparently spontaneous video clip, Fletcher discusses the merits of cocaine with fellow actor Scott Shepherd in a bar. Fletcher is interrupted by a phone call from his daughter, who needs help with her math homework—in a flash, he becomes spectacularly unhelpful and inarticulate.) At other times the solipsism is just tedious.
Phillips's films succeed because of their introspection and the friction between the filmmaker and his subject. Phillips pulls back the curtain and drills unusually candid peepholes into the frustrating process of making independent movies. (In Walking to Werner, for example, Phillips is so flummoxed by his remote hero Werner Herzog that he is reduced to taking a thousand-mile walk from his home in Seattle to Herzog's home in Los Angeles. The pilgrimage, of course, is 10 times more interesting than any Herzog hagiography.) But in Lasagna, Phillips is the subject and watching him flail in the shallows of himself is one-dimensional—there's no curtain to pull back, nowhere to go.
The failures of genius are more spectacular, more revealing than the successes of mediocrity. But they are, in the end, still failures.