Stopped Forward Motion: Jean-Gabriel Périot at MoMA


Attending last night’s screening of films by Jean-Gabriel Périot at MoMA, part of the museum’s Modern Mondays series, it was best to arrive by bike. There was no better preparation for the evening’s program than the ride uptown on 1st Avenue, a route that would take you alongside the ugly, elevated FDR and past the United Nations building, that oddly monolithic-looking symbol of global cooperation, backlit by the large Pepsi Co. billboard across the river. By the time you passed the retailers—H & M, Zara, Lacoste—on 5th Avenue, testaments to another kind of globalism, you’d be more than ready to see the world through Périot’s dark, political lens.

The night opened with 200,000 Phantoms, an affective portrait of Hiroshima constructed entirely of archival photos layered one on top of the other, centered on one of the city’s landmarks. The loud blast two minutes into the film was a signal of what was to come. Périot’s films are not subtle; however nuanced his message, the filmmaker is not afraid to confront his audience.

Still, if the films are direct in one sense, Périot’s technique allows for a level of ambiguity. Of the films screened last night, there was only one that did not rely solely on archival footage. Périot manipulates his source material to bring a message across, but that message is never simplistic.

Monday’s films covered a variety of topics, from the Black Panther movement to commercial agriculture in Europe. Périot has an eye for riots, protests, and crowds—images of these factored heavily in the films. We Are Winning, Don’t Forget employed a captivating technique, cycling rapidly through still photographs, with each new frame appearing in time to a soundtrack by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The time between cuts changed as the film’s pace sped up and slowed, but always it remained on beat—the effect was both synesthetic and even poly-rythmic, as the timing of the cuts grew more complex.

Undo was similarly innovative. The film showed events that ranged from the quotidian—like an office cafeteria line—to the spectacular—a volcano erupting; a nuclear test—unspooling in reverse. For the first few minutes the gimmick was humorous; as film went on, however, the combined effect was haunting.

A Q&A with the filmmaker followed the screening. Périot discussed the painstaking process of assembling films with archival source material. The filmmaker spoke of 12-hour days. “It’s like boring, everyday work,” he said. He named Dziga Vertov as an influence, in particular that filmmaker’s ideas about the transformative power that editing can have in a film. Certainly the influence shows in Périot’s earnestness. Vertov and others held up film as a triumphant, modern medium; films like “Man with a Movie Camera” are all whirring machine parts and speeding trolleys—motion pictures in the most basic sense, filled with optimism that all that movement was carrying us in a positive direction.

While the connection is clear on one level, however, I noticed a distinct difference in Périot’s work. Périot’s films are far more skeptical of progress, and this shows in their static aesthetic. 200,000 Phantoms, like Man with a Movie Camera, offers a portrait of a city, but the former, unfolding only in still frames, excludes motion entirely; Undo has us literally moving backwards. Vertov was working at the height of modernism, of course, and his ideas are bound up with the time period. Périot’s radicalism reflects the political needs of a different age—our own.


Marshall Yarbrough
Cinespect, April 9th, 2013