Notes on Daredevilsby Rachael Rakes
“Scale is an idea all of its own.” Daredevils is artist, poet, and performer Stephanie Barber’s first feature-length film, and this expanded space becomes a repository for ideas for and about art, and for observations on interaction and interrelation. Here, the excitement of ideas, and of seeing, functions like the rising and falling of serotonin levels, moments of ecstasy leading to inevitably painful ends. Moments bend within that split second when happiness turns into melancholy on contact with the intellect.
Structured in three discrete parts, Daredevils begins with a conversation and ends with a dance sequence. In the first act, a young woman (called “the writer” in the credits, and played by non-actor KimSu Theiler) interviews an aging successful artist (played by actress Flora Coker) for a magazine article. “The artist” is a maker of fantastical installations: one in which large objects achieve anti-gravity through the use of magnets; a participatory human hologram film; and a smellodium, that is, a series of rooms with discrete smells that conjure narrative without aural or visual inputs to insert the crude force of individual memory. Listening, the writer exudes simultaneous excitement and discomfort, as the artist, resolved and at ease, talks of the heady inspirations for her pieces. In contrasting ways, the two women take up an equal amount of space in the scene. And the writer’s own ideas, which come out in choppy and uneven bursts, registering her emotional uncertainty, reign in the conversation, weighing it down with associations and grapplings.
What’s set up to seem like a brief opening scene, one that will act as a prelude to “action” in the film, slowly reveals itself as the main event. The easy cinematic corollary here is My Dinner with Andre: two people sliding into the comfort of a place of focused non-action, a location for the transmittal of intellect and experience, a space to lengthen the second before elation goes south, or goes somewhere else. But after a steady unraveling, the second ends. The artist has to go, allowing the details of exterior life that assault the writer’s psychic balance to come into relief.
Suddenly, the writer is on a treadmill at the gym. Two people are in the background playing racquetball. Their impertinence, intruding into the meditative space of this movie and playing gym games in their stupid sports outfits, foils the magical suspension created by the prior scene. As if to insist on continuing an isolation of feeling, the soundtrack on the writer’s headphones darkens in contrast with what is onscreen, pulling the action into a melancholy bubble. The monologue of a young female daredevil, who plainly explicates the zones of escape she creates for herself in her acts, takes control of the image. The daredevil’s detachment from her body and her openness to breaking it apart transfers to the writer on the treadmill. Watching this is like watching someone cut themself in order to trigger the release of neurotransmitters. Daredevils want to die, it’s often thought. But her acts are neither suicides nor distractions. They’re explorations of human physicality and temporality so extreme that they leave a trail of vertigo.
In the third act, only the very last moments, we learn several details of the writer’s life: where she lives, with whom, in what style. Then the dance scene, in the night, in a large green backyard with lights of cars sewing through the background. The day is over. There’s a song, with a kazoo, and the sensation that this person is doing everything she can to make the present moment bearable, or to flow with the volatility.
Daredevils premiered at Views from the Avant-Garde at the New York Film Festival on October 3rd.
RACHAEL RAKES is co-editor of the Film Section of the Brooklyn Rail, a collaborator at Heliopolis Project Space, and an independent curator and programmer.