“i.thou” is a compelling, hypnotic film by Jessica Fenlon. The source material for the film comes almost entirely from Hollywood footage, usually from thrillers or sci-fi films featuring a female protagonist, but Fenlon has very extensively altered both the images and sounds through complex digital manipulations. Not only are individual moments from the scenes interwoven into complex new sequences, but Fenlon blends together multiple images through overlaid digital “painting” effects, making the images look somewhat as if they are painted in watercolors and laid on top of one another, with splashes of water forcing one shot to bleed into several others. Even the edges of the frames look as if they are melting into the surrounding black.
Fenlon seems as if she is concerned with trying to overcome the disembodied, abstract nature of digital media, and bring to it some of the tactile quality of celluloid film or of painting. But we can still see the blocky edges of the pixels through the blur, reminding us of the digital nature of the images. The resulting look of the video is often, in a sense, a mess, but it is a glorious, riotous, rich and vivid kind of a mess, where disparate colors and textures bleed into one another in surprising, beautiful, and thrilling new combinations.
The soundtrack, like the images, is a carefully constructed, many-layered reworking of samples from the original films. A dense collage of key phrases of text, music, and sonic accents such as a sudden intake of breath make the sound into a poetic commentary on the images. Fenlon also mixes in other kinds of samples, notably from Eminem’s songs. Like hip-hop, Fenlon’s artistic practice is to create a complex new composition by digitally altering samples from popular culture. Her film is a thoughtful meditation on the gender politics of films, so it is especially telling that she chooses to sample Eminem’s own lyrics and his samples from Rihanna, with their glorification of men’s abuse of women.
“i.thou” doesn’t exactly tell a story, but it distills the atmosphere of dozens of stories drawn from films, generally stories where a woman is trapped in the (male dominated) institution of a mental hospital, a lab, or a prison, where she struggles equally against her captors and her own, internalized sense of being “sick” or “wrong.” Since I don’t generally watch Hollywood films, I didn’t recognize any of the source footage in the film, which may have either helped or hurt my appreciation of the film. (I generally try to avoid the pernicious effects of mainstream culture by staying away from it.) Fenlon’s digital painting style often looks as if the images are made of a kind of sticky, gooey substance which clings to the people in the frame, which is an excellent metaphor for the feeling that the myths and messages of Hollywood have a corrupting, sticky effect on our emotional lives and self-images.
“i.thou” depicts Fenlon’s struggle to make digital images feel more physical as a struggle which is doomed to failure. Similarly, we can all look to the heroes and heroines of commercial films when we are trying to construct a sense of identity for ourselves, but this too is doomed to failure. Ultimately, these representations always carry someone else’s (commercial) agenda, and they don’t come from our own lived experience. Fenlon dramatizes the attempt to re-paint and re-form Hollywood images, both to understand them and to inoculate oneself from their influence. The title “i.thou” seems to refer explicitly to this conflict. One of the lines of dialog repeated throughout the film asks if “the exorcism worked.” “i.thou” is Fenlon’s exorcism of the movies.