Mandy (2018)
Dir. Panos Cosmatos

The revolutionary painters of yesteryear will all end up subdued on the walls of banks, hotel lobbies, and law firms. The meanings of these works don’t become unwritten in this context, but transform into hypothetical signifiers of power, which in turn point to the power of the buyer. This can seem unavoidable: paintings which in their message oppose the principles of the institutions that hang them simply raise the power capital of the buyer through this contradiction. Naturally these historically powerful objects are desirable to collectors with financial power, but in the art world their cultural capital scales inversely to these acquisitions. This means that as long as art is private property, art histories will dictate the grim fate of an artwork thus: to cultural significance to tastefulness to collectibility to an indescribable beige. Conversations around middlebrow saw a boom in the early part of this decade, running concurrently with normcore as a way of signalling a victory of the beige, the loss of self and authenticity etc. As interesting as some of the insights could be, the overall narrative could occasionally feel like a culturally elite group protecting their form of wealth from a culture-sapping financially elite other (and vice versa), or the most fascinatingly sheltered identity crisis of a self-appointed vanguard aired in recent memory. Makers weren’t asked to weigh in, it was all about access and acquisition. Furthermore among the many excluded voices were those interested in works which traveled from historical significance to cultural tastelessness, falling short of collectibility and therefore bypassing beigeness.

The most interesting and heartwarming visions I had working in a gallery were the ones in spaces artlessly showing art in general: old paintings and sculptures that don’t support a curatorial narrative displayed on the unsexy walls of a public institution. These are the images jettisoned from the aforementioned conversation altogether. That was ultimately about taste and levels of privilege to cultural authority, and nobody concerned about their place in it would ever want something as hideously sensuous as the old art hung in these artless spaces. Instead they attract slow moving bogans and slower moving elderly people in equal numbers. I will never not be filled with warmth when I remember the morning where a group of black metallers waited politely behind an old woman with a zimmer frame to get a closer look at Draper’s The Lament for Icarus. There is something indescribably bogan about the nineteenth century, from Frederic Leighton to John William Waterhouse, to even those who retroactively contribute to a narrative of modernism (which is not bogan): Goya’s Black Paintings, Courbet, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Before that were the Dutch Golden Age vanitas, and Rembrandt, and later Arthur Rackham, all so bogan it needn’t be pointed out. Of course museums do not display these artists because of their boganness; it is just that over time their aesthetic and thematic concerns have come to correlate more to bogan values than to discussions of gatekeeping in contemporary art.

In the oft-cited Masscult & Midcult Macdonald points to the middle as a threat to both high and low culture; conservative in form and purpose but with enough surface gestures to an aspirational high culture that it generates ambiguity, inhibiting experimentation and development on both ends. Or, from someone who knew only the highest or lowest of kicks: The evil is not in extremes / It’s in the aftermath / The middle mass / After the fact / Vulturous in the aftermath. Velvet paintings, animal blankets, the covers of poorly written fantasy novels, black metal albums all find a bridge to another century’s highbrow. They’re not welcome but they don’t care. They are marauders. As the elite wonder about how to negotiate their fate, about how to protect themselves from the growing middle mass, the tasteless marauding parties successfully cut it out like they’ve never heard of it. Mandy is grounded entirely in a love for masscult tears and vengeance, built from the scraps of everything discarded from the middle mass. What this means, counterintuitively, is a cry for the lowbrow avant-garde. Last century’s film radicals have not been made beige, but pushed to the margins of taste. Brakhage does not appear sanitised in middlebrow films; that’s the fate of narrative filmmakers like Malick and Tarkovsky. Experimental film is still too sensuous, we only find it in the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.

Mandy might not be what anybody asked for but that is the best part: it encourages experimentation from the margins, folding and bending time and texture into something that looks and feels like itself. This is not to say that the avant-garde is now lowbrow, but it can seem that way when experimental methods are used to guide our hearts to care about a romance that says nothing on paper, to fear and believe ‘gnarly weirdo’ bikers that would otherwise come with the irony of an Astron-6 production. There are beautiful touches: when a pulsating light reveals and then shrouds a face, Cosmatos trains us to know where the eye will be so that we can always see her, even when she’s not there. In true bogan fashion we stare into the abyss, and our loved ones stare back at us, always there for us in the darkness. We see the couple watching TV, and when the shot reverses we see them through the concave glass of the screen, framed in the only way that would make them happy. TV dinners and hideous nightshirts.

Cosmatos’ pursuit of all things historically vital, now bogan, means so many images pulled from shitty tour posters, animal blankets, and album covers that Mandy can be overwhelming. It requires a master’s hand as any amount too much or too little can break us from its fiery dreamspace. When Mandy shifts abruptly between polarities, for example from Brakhage to Bell Witch (which makes sense) to thrash metal, that final stretch leaves it open to becoming a joke. This is not helped by the dialogue which in key places opts to imitate Chris Onstad instead of fully embarrassing itself. The use of Cage alone is a risky move, but as it happens Cage believes it all more than anyone else. He fights against his status as a meme through doing it all on his own terms, best embodied in a manic bathroom scene where he makes us laugh and cry at his will. Cosmatos is always aware of what he is doing, but he does not always do the right thing. Cage is the best thing about it because he too wishes the parts about it that are just dumb weren’t there. The film textures are in agreement, as they tend to drop out when Cosmatos gets too indulgent. Regardless it is heartbreaking and soothing. It is art historical, with the aesthetic and thematic parallels being beauty, pain, and death. Mandy is such a romantic pledge of undying devotion that you can’t tell whether it’s a mournful scream a la Annabel Lee, or a breakup revenge thing where circumstances change but the pain never does. Then again maybe it’s just happy, and a lowbrow avant-garde bogan tragedy is the sweetest gesture of all.

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