The Grand Bizarre is a kind of nonverbal musical about the decay of the Earth.
Jodie Mack’s experimental cinema is one of textures, a matter of collage as much as montage. Posters and cut-outs adorn her movies, so tactile that her work felt three-dimensional well before her actual 3D piece, Let Your Light Shine. The Grand Bizarre, her first-feature-length film (streaming now on MUBI), consists largely of textiles, of fabrics and rugs given movement through stop-motion and time-lapse photography as the camera traverses the world. From the opening images of fabrics superimposed as makeshift dunes over a shot of waves crashing ashore, each splash of water on rock timed with a flash of light that turns their churning disruption into an artillery volley, Mack’s kaleidoscopic approach is on full display. The film is an explosion of color and dizzying movement even when the “stars” are static pieces of fabric that must be arranged or rapidly shuffled in place.
At first, the film comes across as a jaunty travelogue. Its early images consist of hard-shell suitcases in loud colors of pink and blue arranged like passengers awaiting departure, and two globes rotating in opposite directions placed so close to each other they appear to be brushing each other in a kind of kiss. Rugs and other cloths are simultaneously passenger and cargo as they are placed on baggage claim conveyor belts in airports and their own seats in taxis and ferries. Mack composes and edits musically, using rhythmic cutting and animated movement to create a freewheeling trek around the world.
Underneath this invigorating style, however, is a closer examination of how the world is connected now. It’s not for nothing that Mack chooses for her central subject textiles, one of the first kinds of goods to be industrialized. Amid the whimsy are images of factories that abruptly recontextualize the international reach of the film’s travel as economic globalism. This adds a dark undercurrent to the bright look of the film, one that forces the viewer to consider, despite the lack of onscreen humans, the dispersed and exploitative labor that goes into producing such gorgeous fabrics.
Of particular note is the shrewdness with which Mack traces the sublimation of specific designs and artworks into mass-market production that erases cultural specificity for meaningless prettiness. Amid the countless close-ups of textiles as they rapidly cycle into frame are patterns clearly derived from such sources as indigenous peoples and Islamic geometric art; one brief interlude even places dozens of rugs on the gate to a mosque. But the fact that such patterns can now be mass produced in factories by people far removed from their contexts, if not machines, speaks to the loss of individual culture to global capitalism. That some fabrics make outright kitsch of these designs, inserting heart symbols amid the rectangular colors that resemble tribal art, only exacerbates this erosion of identity. This point is emphasized further by collages of alphabets that hilariously give way to images of tattoos of Mandarin characters and hieroglyphic symbols on the shoulders and lower backs of people who don’t look like they hail from Southeast Asia or North Africa.
Mack accompanies images of industrial production and global distribution with sounds that blend with electronic music, setting the churn of presses and the whine of metal to a 4/4 beat. Even stray noises like a Skype call tone and musical samples of Chicago footwork and Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” are woven into this larger soundscape. Ingeniously, Mack returns club music to its roots; various strains of propulsive and danceable electronic music trace back to industrial towns like Düsseldorf, Detroit and Sheffield, where young musicians bent the noise of factories into rhythmic shapes. Indeed, many pop pioneers of electronic music openly used synthesizers and field recordings as pointed commentary, whether for optimistic posthumanism or bleak visions of both workers and pop musicians shackled to prefab structures of expression and consumption. The animations and editing align with this caterwauling din, and at times the film resembles an extended music video, most especially of the surrealistic live animation that Michel Gondry used in his work with the White Stripes.
The conflation of visual and musical art as primary victims of post-industrial voracious production turns The Grand Bizarre into a kind of nonverbal musical about the decay of the Earth, Koyaanisqatsi as scored by Oneohtrix Point Never. Throwaway details like warehouse pallets of film rolls being parted like theatrical curtains add touches as ironic as they are sincere and playful, calling attention to the film’s existence as a film as much as the hour runtime matches the maximum amount of celluloid that can fit on a 16mm reel. Through it all, the film revels in travel and exposure to other places even as it worries that ease of access and casual appropriation threatens to homogenize the world into little more than a background whizzing by in the window of a vehicle.