Isaac Julien’s painterly approach probes the edges of cinema

This article by Jeffery Gantz appeared in The Boston Globe. Follow the link below for the original report.

Isaac Julien’s films prowl the margins of mainstream cinema. A Londoner whose parents emigrated to England from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Julien, 51, first attracted attention with “Looking for Langston,’’ a black-and-white meditation on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance that won a Teddy at the 1989 Berlin Film Festival. Julien has since gone on to treat subjects as varied as the 18th-century architect Sir John Soane, the blaxploitation genre of the 1970s, and British director Derek Jarman. But he’s also an artist – he graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design – and his nine-screen, China-themed video installation, “Ten Thousand Waves,’’ is currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Today the ICA will complement that installation with an afternoon retrospective of his films, in three separate 90-minute programs.

Julien may be a documentarian in his subject matter, but he’s an artist and a poet in his approach. “Looking for Langston’’ melds archival footage and photographs of Hughes – whom Julien wants to reclaim as a black gay icon – with fantasy re-creations. The painterly images, often unfolding through vertical pans and long, slow tracking shots, riff on the nude photo work of Robert Mapplethorpe and George Platt Lynes; the soundtrack ranges from Richard Bruce Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade’’ to George Hannah’s “Freakish Man Blues.’’ The facts of Hughes’s life are subsumed into Julien’s perception of the truth.

“Derek’’ (2008), which shares the second program with “Looking for Langston,’’ is anchored by a frank, informative interview with Jarman from 1990 (he died of AIDS in 1994) and by recollections by one of his muses, Tilda Swinton, from Prospect Cottage, his home on the coast of Kent. Jarman talks about hanging out with David Hockney and Andy Warhol and Ken Russell, and there’s footage of his 1976 Queer Cinema landmark “Sebastiane,’’ and his 1978 punk classic, “Jubilee,’’ and later, better-known films such as “Caravaggio,’’ “Edward II,’’ and “Blue.’’ Like “Looking for Langston,’’ “Derek’’ is a piece of cinematic art. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell where Jarman’s fantasies leave off and Julien’s begin.

Does Julien ever think of making documentaries that are less, well, artistic? “I think in America there’s a very strong sense of what a biopic is, and I think these works are more like film essays,’’ he says from his London studio. “They’re kind of meditations on the biography of the filmmaker or artist. In Europe, there’s perhaps a more open approach. And I treat my audiences intelligently. But I like traditional biopics; when they’re done well, they’re fantastic.’’

He himself adopts a more traditional approach for “BaadAsssss Cinema,’’ an hourlong 2002 TV documentary made for the Independent Film Channel that shares the first program with the 10-minute “Baltimore’’ (2003). The talking heads here include blaxploitation luminaries Melvin Van Peebles, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, and Gloria Hendry. “This one too is like a film essay,’’ Julien says, “but it’s very different. We’re talking about a Hollywood genre here. I think it’s very provocative, and quite entertaining, but there are elements where it’s trying to tell a narrative in a typical manner. I had taught a course at Harvard for Skip Gates, and ‘BaadAsssss Cinema’ came out of that course. That’s basically how the film got made.’’

He adds, “And then ‘Baltimore,’ which stars Melvin Van Peebles, is a kind of meditation on blaxploitation cinema. If you see ‘BaadAsssss Cinema’ and then ‘Baltimore,’ you’ll see a very interesting conversation. ‘Baltimore’ is a three-screen work that has been shown in many museums and has traveled around the world, but the single-screen version of it also won a prize, at the Cologne Film Biennale, in 2003.’’

Like “Baltimore,’’ some of the five shorts that make up the third program – “Vagabondia’’ (2000), “The Long Road to Mazatlán’’ (1999), “Paradise Omeros’’ (2002), “True North’’ (2004), and “The Leopard’’ (2007) – exist in multi-screen as well as single-screen form. Are the nine screens of “Ten Thousand Waves’’ the wave of Julien’s future? “I think at the moment that’s the version of my work that can be offered in a unique way in the gallery complex. I think it’s quite exciting and novel. It’s my version of 3-D cinema, a way of trying to make the audience participate.’’

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