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By David Finkelstein | November 14, 2009

“Abby” is a strange, powerful, and evocative film by Deon Kay. The film alternates between onscreen text, with white letters on a black background which might be from a computer screen, and images of a young woman telling a story. The onscreen text is heavily redacted, as if by a state censor, with many words whited out. The woman’s narration likewise is constantly interrupted by the sound of a loud beep, so that many words from every sentence are missing, and the story is thus cut up and fragmented so that it is almost impossible to follow. Her image is frequently supplanted by the word “DEON” in large letters. Her voice is often heard simultaneously with a man’s voice, reading cut up fragments from the story “Snow White” by Donald Barthelme. (We also see images of the book.)

“Abby” presents a view of male language as literary, distanced, and characterized by an evasion of responsibility towards women. “You can always see a film or read a book or have an interior monologue” is a typical pronouncement about what to do when you can’t get a girl. Female language, by contrast, is depicted as spoken and personal. Both men and women view each other as objects to be manipulated, rather than as subjects to empathize with.

One gradually becomes aware, through the bewildering visual and sound structure of the film (consisting of an endless series of interruptions), that the woman’s story is of a sexual betrayal by a man. As a viewer, one is at the mercy of the editing, controlling voice of the filmmaker, the redactor who is manipulating and censoring the texts, with his constant reiteration of the name “DEON.” This controlling presence is felt as an example of a man trying to control and contain a woman’s voice. The ending of her story, where she responds to the betrayal with violence, almost left me cheering, since I had become so irritated at the constant interruptions and manipulations of her story.

Clearly, Kay is creating this barrage of irritation in a completely conscious, artistic way, and, just as clearly, he inserts the character of “DEON” into the story as an ironic, self-conscious criticism of his own male tendencies to control and manipulate women. The actual rhythmic surface of the film itself, with the constant barrage of beeps, interruptions, and overlapping voices, and the rapid alternation between live action and printed text, creates a lively and exciting musical texture, overriding the irritation it causes. Kay has made a highly sophisticated critical statement about himself, language, and the culture at large, which is also a well-crafted and pleasurable aesthetic object.

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