Rodney Graham – The System of Rodney Graham’s Costume Trilogy



‘Vexation Island’, ‘How I Became a Ramblin’ Man’ and ‘City Self/Country Self’ constitute a trilogy according to Rodney Graham. They are all beautifully shot, carefully produced appropriations of costume genres, but, beyond that, what do they have in common? Why on earth should these short, disparate films be considered in any way as a trilogy?


‘Vexation Island’, made in 1997, is rich in its references to both filmic and textual sources. A lone buccaneer lies sleeping, or unconscious, on a beach. His head rests on a barrel, and we can see a fresh wound on his forhead. These signs indicate that he is the unfortunate victim of shipwreck, and, next to him, a parrot perches on a second barrel. The island he has been washed ashore on is the perfect castaway’s home : a prominent palm tree, a central mass of green flora surrounded by a neat edge of yellow sand and turqoise blue sea. All the cliche’s of the desert island. The camera moves between landscape wides and human close ups in the rhythm associated with Leone, and not too much seems to be happening until the parrot’s squawking ‘Wake up please’ eventually produces a result.


The buccaneer wakes up, has a rather dreamy look around, rises, and turns his nascent attention to the palm tree next to him. Eyeing the cluster of coconuts at its crown, he starts to shake the tree. A coconut falls, and, in slow motion, knocks him out. The buccaneer falls to his previously motionless state, lying flat on the sand, head on the barrel, and we are returned effortlessly to the start of the film. The poor buccaneer’s existence, we infer, simply consists in this dreadful repetitive cycle : to sleep, to wake, to be knocked out, to sleep…


The film is funny, and, like all the best comic scenarios, it highlights the serious that is always the backbone of the comic. Should we see it as a spoof on the narrative convention of the desert island castaway, moving away from any suggestion of the dignity of the individual to a hopeless cycle of blunders? Where ‘Robinson Crusoe’ is often touted as one of the founding texts of modern individualism, Graham’s version situates the lone islander as a loser condemned to a cycle of impasse. Is it a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, where each of man’s efforts is blocked and he is perpetually sent back to square one? Is it a sophisticated commentary on the repetition compulsion described by Freud, an author with whom Graham is exceptionally familiar, having made his own original contributions to Freud scholarship? Or is it the sequel to Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’, in which Graham’s amplified sound of wind in trees echoes the distinctive acoustics of the old classic and finally solves the mystery of the missing body, situating it in full view on the desert island?


‘How I Became a Ramblin’ Man’, shot in 1999, also begins with a Leone style shot. A lone rider moves towards the camera in a Western landscape. We hear the sound of birds chirping, and the cowboy continues towards us, making his way through lush countryside and along a river bed. We hear the amplified sound of the horse’s hooves and assorted country noises. Eventually, he dismounts, takes up his guitar and sings the lovely little song of the title. The lyrics explain his choice of lifestyle and distaste for the city. Then, he gets back on his horse and retraces his path, each shot matching the earlier shots of the cowboy’s arrival. We really want something to happen, but nothing really does : no shoot out, no Indians, no stagecoach… Just the symmetry of the rider’s arrival and departure, followed by a fresh shot of his ambling into the distance.


All this is shot with the care and attention to detail of ‘Vexation Island’. Its filmic qualities are always accentuated, with the soundtrack a mixture of live sound and foley, and the landscape  digitally enhanced through colour grading. The interpretative possibilities, however, seem more limited. We have moved from the human predicament as such to one individual’s choice of a lifestyle. As he sings, ‘City life just got me down…Figured it was time to start just wandering around’.


‘City Self/Country Self’ is the last part of Graham’s trilogy. We see a hat falling in the opening shot, and then a man, the country self clad in the loose garments of the provincial, pick it up, place it on his head and then continue to walk down a narrow street. We hear the sound of horse’s hooves. Now we see the city self with his stripy trousers march down a similar street, examining his reflection in a window, and then having his shoes shone. Country self looks up at a clock, and sees that it is approaching noon. Now we see a street with various people walking slowly like automata. They could well be clockwork models, each following what seems to be a predetermined course. City self also looks at the time, glancing at his watch. The cutting gets swifter – country self is walking, city comes up behind country, a coach with two identically clad coachmen approaches…. The clock strikes twelve and then city gives country a repeated kick in the bum in slow motion. Country self’s hat falls to the ground and city walks off to the sound of the horse’s hooves… and there we are back at the start of the film.


Here again we have a multitude of interpetative possibilites. Are city and country self two sides of the same personality to give a Freudian sketch of self-punishment? Is it a social parable in which the characters are simply representatives of city and country as such, with the kicking symbolic of the fop’s rejection of the rural usurper? Is it about the alienation of the modern townscape and the way that we can never quite feel at home in it? Or a subtle commentary on Freud’s essay on the uncanny, where its author tells a story of repeatedly finding himself back at the same place, the greenclad coachmen and the central characters evoking the theme of the double that Freud had made so central to his argument?


Perhaps the reason why any one interpretation – and even the act of interpreting itself – would be mildly preposterous in the context of these works also gives us a clue to their structure. The trilogy presents us, after all, with different scenarios of the artist slipping away. Just as in Graham’s ‘Fishing on a Jetty’, a restaging of a scene in ‘To Catch a Thief’ in which Graham pretends to be Cary Grant pretending to be someone else fishing to avoid the police, so these films only give us the artist as someone else, as a persona, as masked.


When the artist puts on a costume manufactured by the history of cinema, fiction or art, Rodney Graham isn’t entirely there,  and when he does appear as Rodney Graham, he isn’t entirely there either : in ‘Halcion Sleep’ ( 1994 ), we see him lying on the back seat of a car in an unconscious drug-induced stupor, and in ‘Phonokinetoscope’ he is filmed cycling round a Berlin garden on acid. It never seems possible to access the artist in anything but an altered state.


In the costume trilogy, Graham has chosen densely symbolic mediums – the castaway drama, the Western, the period drama – and used these, as he says, to “insert himself”. Each of these genres has its own conventions and carries with it a vast baggage of filmic and narrative associations. These are the costumes that the artist steps into, and it is no accident that Graham exhibits these costumes quite literally in conjunction with his screenings. As an artist or author, as someone sending us a message, Graham can only be located as someone else – or, via the effect of drugs in ‘Halcion Sleep’ and ‘Phonokinetoscope’, as somewhere else. He only takes the stage as masked or altered, and that is one reason why interpretation, beyond a private amusement, is ruled out.


But don’t the films of the costume trilogy challenge this sort of postmodern evasion of a fixed self? The evasion is simple enough : the self is sliding away, never graspable, like the identity of the artist himself in Graham’s work. He takes a distance from his production so that, by using well-known film genres, he inhabits his work although it is never really his. As Graham pointed out, “These works are conceived more as Hollywood style star vehicles and less as auteur films”. This is echoed in his choice to let someone else direct, and the rhetorical stance here is irony.


But what else happens in these films? Something very precise. The persona gets hit. A coconut hits the buccaneer and country self, played by Graham, gets a kicking from city self. We thus have a certain contrast. On the one hand, the artist dons a disguise, inhabiting a world built by others, never too serious, never pin-downable. And on the other, he gets struck, he is grasped by something. These comic scenes mime the act of interpreting itself, in the sense of an access to a referent. And yet these acts of grasping, of touching, of contact, carry little meaning as such. They seem contingent and arbitrary, failing to fit the naratives they evoke through genre. If the referent is reached, it’s in a scenario where meaning has a fragile value.


What about the ramblin’ man? This second film has no moment of contact, no moment when the actor is struck or pinned down. In the place of such a moment, we have a song. Graham’s musical works are of special importance to him. Although we often have the feeling of a parody, with well-known musical genres being pastiched, the constant is the presence of the voice, whatever the singer’s relation to his lyrics may be. These lyrics, in ‘Ramblin’ Man’, in fact give us a clue as to the trilogy or sequence to Graham’s films.


“I’ve been following this pal of mine,

Through the canyons of my wasted time…

City life just got me down…

Figured it was time to start just wanderin’ around”


Who is this strange pal Graham has been following? Since his next film work was ‘City Self/Country Self’, why not guess that the pal he’s been following is exactly the country self? A version of the ramblin’ man.


As to his opinion of the sedentary life

My father once told me

He said

When folks can bear the sight

Of a solitary type

I’ll tell you how I came to be a ramblin’ man


Part of the comedy of this film lies in the fact that the title is not ‘Ramblin’ Man’ but ‘How I Became a Ramblin’ Man’. Visually, since all we see is a ramblin’ man on a loop, we don’t learn anything about how he got to be that way. Yet the song lyric tells us that his father would let us know the answer, yet only once we were able to bear the sight of the solitary drifter. And since so little happens in the film in terms of narrative, we are continually expecting something to happen. As viewers, it is not at all evident that we really can bear to see the sight of a solitary drifter without anything actually happening to him….The film thus poses a question to the viewer, not only about whether they are ready to learn the answer but also, more generally, as to how much lack of narrative they can take.


So why not pull out the stops and see ‘City Self/Country Self’ as the answer to the question of ‘How I Became a Ramblin’ Man’. This will tell us, after all, how his father got to be a ramblin’ man, as promised by Graham’s song. Maybe the kick to Country Self’s bum propelled him out of city life back into the country. Maybe he gave up his aspirations for the bourgeois life. And we can’t help noticing the acoustic continuity that links the end of ‘Ramblin’ Man’ to the start of ‘City Self’ : the sound of  horse’s hooves clipclopping. A sound which, incidentally, is often rendered by the clattering together of the two halves of a coconut…


If we take seriously the technique of insertion adopted by Graham so elegantly in works like ‘The System of Landor’s Cottage’ and his rewriting of ‘Dr No’, we can glue all of these bits together. And why not add ‘Edge of a Wood’ ( 1999 ) to this series, a looped video in which we see the edge of a wood in darkness illuminated by the lights from an unseen helicopter. This is clearly footage of the attempt to airlift the body hidden at the edge of the foliage in ‘Blow Up’ to its new desert island location, and ‘Halcion Sleep’ now loses its opacity to become Graham’s screen-test for the part of the mostly inert body of ‘Vexation Island’. And, as Graham himself suggests, aren’t the magical twinkling sugar granules of ‘Coruscating Cinnamon Granules’ similar to the stars seen when one receives a blow to the head – no doubt that produced by a coconut…..


Yet how do Graham’s personae ever escape from the repetitive loops that organise the action? Strictly speaking, they’ve got no right to enjoy a trilogy. Since their end is their beginning, there seems no way out of the cyclical universe they inhabit : they are forever doomed to repeat the same actions. Shrinks will no doubt love the fact that these cycles are established by an object falling : as Graham says, the falling hat in ‘City Self’ is a “structuring element in the film loop”, just like the coconut in ‘Vexation Island’. In psychoanalytic theory, repetition is established by an object falling, which initiates the circuit-like efforts to refind it or mark out the contours of its absence in the world of representation. The splendour of ‘Vexation Island’ lies in the way it not only makes shrinks happy with this latter idea, but also in its really quite complicated take on the representation of this original, unrepresentable loss.


We see the coconut falling and in that sense it represents ( visually ) the falling of an object. But at the same time we don’t see the coconut falling. What, after all, is that wound on the buccaneer’s forehead? We assume it is the result of a shipwreck, in accordance with the usual filmic and narrative conventions. But since all we really know about this castaway is that a coconut falls on him, it is only reasonable to infer that the wound is the result of the coconut’s having fallen. Thus what sets repetition going is both represented and left out of the visual field simultaneously. It is always something that has already happened.


‘City Self’ presents the other side of the coin. The falling object is less what has always already happened than that which is always going to happen. The scrutiny of clocks and watches, the impeccable timing, the target-like spiral on the country self’s behind all add to the sense of the impending encounter, the High Noon that repeats itself in the film loop. As Graham says, “The whole thing is destined to happen, like elementary particles colliding”. The empty, formal cycle of repetition is introduced by losing an object, just like in ‘Vexation Island’. And the loss of an object makes you look for it in all the tragic – and comic – ways that characterise human endeavour.