Stealing Time: Emma Bee Bernstein by Michele Gerber Klein
Henry Hills’ Emma’s Dilemma
“In America…in the late 1990s,” poet Charles Bernstein observes in the film, “the perspective of the culture is from the point of view of the 12 year old girl…This is Emma’s situation, Emma’s dilemma.” Emma, as Bernstein’s daughter, was thrust into New York’s avant-garde poetry, art, theatre, and film circuit, though she preferred to identify with Nirvana and Parker Posey. In 1997, when Emma was 12, she was enlisted by experimental filmmaker Henry Hills to conduct interviews of his colleagues, including her mother and father. Over the next five years, Hills recorded Emma’s encounters with Jackson Mac Low, Ken Jacobs, Roberto Juarez, Susan Howe, Keith Sanborn, Cheryl Donegan, Julie Patton, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Ann Brown, and Sally Silvers. Simultaneously a view of Hills’ circle through Emma’s rapidly changing teenage eyes, and a view of Emma through Hills’ eyes, this two-way portrait abounds with conflicting perspectives.
The collision of generations is matched by abrupt shifts between documentary and structuralist modes of filmmaking. Passages of hand-held footage, which portray Emma and her interviewees with seeming directness and immediacy, are interrupted by passages where editing processes are foregrounded. The image periodically breaks down into a mosaic of digital pixels. Words and gestures are fragmented and looped, creating stuttering sonic and visual rhythms that suggest a momentary failure in communication.
We meet Emma in her bedroom, pasted wall-to-ceiling with images of indie starlets and musicians torn from magazines. She is inspired by MTV and Andy Warhol, which she inquires about in the interviews, prompting responses concerning the dangers of advertising, fame, and money. Artist Kenny Goldsmith asks, “Do you think art has any real importance compared to Ralph Lauren?” Emma candidly replies, “I don’t like Ralph Lauren.” Balancing her interest in poetry with her idolization of Courtney Love and Chloe Sevigny, Emma rejects sharp distinctions between mass-entertainment and critical art practice, seeming to want them to exist side by side, as on her bedroom walls.
I knew Emma her entire life. I was inspired to work with her on this project upon hearing her comments after attending a screening of my films when she was 9. The sophistication of her observations was uncanny for such a child. This was before mini- DV, though, and I was uncomfortable working in 8mm video and was unable to raise funds to shoot with her in 16mm. She had just turned 12 in 1997 when we began shooting. The project was to consist of her interviewing a range of artists about their work. Poet Jackson Mac Low was the first subject, followed after a few months by interviews with Ken Jacobs and Richard Foreman which became separate films, NERVOUS KEN (2003) and KING RICHARD (2004). We continued working together on a more or less regular basis until she was 16 and then did a final shoot the next year. As we progressed I felt the main center of focus subtly shifting from my artist subjects to my teen protagonist. I had all along intended to take an experimental (rather than documentary) approach to the interview material, to fragment and reassemble it in various ways, frequently riffing on the subjects' own work, exploring qualities of this new medium of digital video. In this final version these explorations strangely function as interstitial material.
When an exhibit of Emma's polaroids was announced at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, my longtime dear friend, poet Charles Bernstein, Emma's father, asked me to put together some unseen outtakes out of the 30 or so hours I had shot with Emma. I took this opportunity to finally finish this project which had lain dormant for so many years. I had been somewhat fearful of approaching the material after Emma's death. There is a bizarre aspect to editing, intensely focussing on and analyzing minute moments of time, revealing gestures and vocabularies and manners of speaking and moving, which to the editor seems like spending time with those recorded (even if I never met them). It was fantastic to hang out with Emma one last time, and only when I finished, really in the sound mix, did I feel the immense tragedy of this lost life. I sent a preview copy to Charles and he wrote me yesterday:
You really pulled the whole work together in the new version. It takes on a narrative force, as a quest, with the time stopping or opening up in those stuttering moments, which operate as networks of stoppages in Duchamp's sense..It's like having Emma back, in flickering moments; and then not.
The material is basically assembled in chronological order. This is primarily a film about Emma and her changes from 12-17 (before she made any of the work in this show), but it includes much of the archaeology of it's making.
Emma’s Dilemma stars Emma Bee Bernstein, with Jackson Mac Low, Eduardo Allegria & dancers, Ken & Flo Jacobs, Roberto Juarez, Kenny Goldsmith, Susan Howe, Cheryl Donegan, Felix Bernstein, Keith Sanborn, Julie Patton, Susan Bee, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Ann Brown, and Charles Bernstein.
Henry Hills’ Emma’s Dilemma reinvents the portrait for the age of digital reproduction. In a set of tour-de-force probes into the images and essences of such downtown luminaries as Richard Foreman, Ken Jacobs, and Carolee Schneemann, Hills’ cinematic inventions literally turn the screen upside down and inside out. In this epic journey into the picaresque, we follow Emma Bee Bernstein, our intrepid protagonist, from her pre-teen innocence to her late teen-attitude, as she learns about the downtown art scene firsthand. In the process, Hills reimagines the art of video in a style that achieves the density, complexity, and visual richness of his greatest films.