By David Finkelstein | March 9, 2015

Original Self is a fascinating visual study by artist Van McElwee which looks at the relation of the individual to society. The imagery in the film is derived from a kind of informal parade in which a joyous crowd surges forward, carrying colorful banners and umbrellas aloft. The camera angle is low, emphasizing the wide open sky behind the figures. The crowd is made of people of diverse ages, ethnicities, and genders. This cheerful, voluntary group celebration under a wide open sky is a quintessential American image, embodying our national concept of a diverse democracy.

McElwee blends multiple layers of the parade images, tinting them different colors. The overlapping of the imagery intensifies throughout the 11 minutes of the work, gradually transforming what we see until it becomes increasingly hard to pick out the faces of individuals. The tinted layers and the colors of the banners give the overlapped images something of the look of stained glass windows, but the continual forward rush of movement makes it look more like a torrent of liquid stained glass. By the video’s climax, the faces of the crowds have been so blended that you can’t see people at all, only puffs of colored smoke rising to the sky. The effect is strikingly beautiful throughout. In an analogous way, the soundtrack takes the sounds of individual voices and gradually blends them into a sustained musical chord.

This visual statement can be read in many ways. For me, the celebratory spirit of the parade seems to posit a happy relationship between the individual and the group, in which being part of a group creates a synergistic strength and joy for the marchers, but without erasing the unique characteristics of individuals. The parade is a kind of performance in which citizens act out this happy balance between the group and the individual. The video addresses this question in a purely visual and formal way, with its constant images of different faces coalescing into a kaleidoscopic cloud which represents the people en masse, but with the faces of individuals continually reappearing, like bubbles on the surface of a social foam. In these times, when the American social contract seems so fragile and stressed by inequality and fear, it is wonderful to have a work which celebrates our ideals, but through a purely visual strategy, rather than a polemical one.

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