Sarah Morris, Robert Towne

Artvehicle 23/Review

19th September 2007 — 28th October 2007

The un-credited screen writer is a ghostly figure erased in the illusion of cinema. In Robert Towne, 2006, Sarah Morris reverses the camera onto the writer and presents what is described as a 'portrait' of a script-doctor whose work includes many classic blockbusters from the 1970s onwards. Shown for the first time in the UK at Whitechapel Gallery, Robert Towne follows Morris' Los Angeles, 2004, which reduced the reality of that city to the fantasy world of Hollywood and the film industry. Here Morris continues to explore the mechanism behind the cinematic representation of reality, in order to pursue the perception of reality as such.

The film resembles a documentary-style interview where an absent questioner barely needs to encourage a loquacious Towne to discuss his role in the creation of hit films such as Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo. Towne is especially insightful when explaining the commercial success of thrillers like The Parallax View by describing a culture obsessed with conspiracy in the post Kennedy assassination era. He suggests that these films fed the desire of an audience awake to political conspiracy and hypocrisy and concludes that they 'did their job too well, there was nothing left to expose'. Towne ultimately proposes that all films are really just about conspiracy.

The film opens with Towne taking a big puff of his cigar and beginning 'Well, ah…,' proposing that what follows is a documentary portrait and leading us to expect the usual illusory techniques that make reality palatable, (illustrative material of the films that Towne discusses, for example). Instead, the 34 minute film consists of a monologue. Towne is shot in three locations in his house, the image of his talking head interrupted only by the very occasional view of his desk or hallway. However, Morris introduces subtle allusions to cinematic technique that stand out in relief against the unchanging visual content. Atmospheric music suggests a building in tension, although the tension here concerns no more than Towne becoming excited about a point and the music fades out once he has made it; hardly a blockbusting climax. Likewise, uncomfortable and seemingly unnecessary cuts throw us awkwardly between Towne's sentences. Morris' film enjoys the paradox of a central character who is an expert in the illusions of film and for whom a film-maker is 'an anarchist who wants to control a fantasy world'. Her exaggerated editorial techniques deliberately draw attention to the methods by which film- makers construct a picture of reality. By adopting these authorial tactics to build her own portrait of Robert Towne, Morris suggests a slippage between her film's form and its content.

Morris' film is only minimally a documentary and requires the language of art film for interpretation. However, presented in the screening room as part of the Whitechapel Laboratory series, it forces us to become cinema viewers and denies us the transitory approach favoured by the gallery visitor. Yet Robert Towne is sparser than Morris' previous films in the sort of visual content that would help to communicate its complex experiments with form to a broad audience. It often feels like an exercise in discourse rather than either of the visual forms it resembles. While Robert Towne the man is a charismatic subject, the presentation of Robert Towne the film threatens to obscure the insight we find in his words.


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Sarah Morris, Robert Towne —