A Movie Without the Picture at The Movies

On 12 June, Louise Lawler’s A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture was non-screened at The Movies in Amsterdam. In the case of the original 1979 version at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica and in some later iterations of the piece, the movie shown was The Misfits (1961); in 1983 in New York, it was The Hustler (also 1961), preceded by the Chuck Jones cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? In 2012, the film selection has progressed to the late 1970s: as most audience members will have realized instantly upon hearing the first notes of the soundtrack in the darkened theater, this time the film was Saturday Night Fever (1977). 

The piece’s anachronistic update was one subject of the conversation that I moderated afterwards (in the cinema’s café) with Eric de Bruyn and Andrea Fraser—with Louise herself in the position of “fact checker.” Moving from the dying days of Old Hollywood to a rather remarkable hybrid of gritty 1970s urban drama and neo-“cinema of attractions” blockbuster spectacle that is almost contemporaneous with A Movie will be Shown Without the Picture itself, Lawler gave us much food for thought. 

As Andrea rightly stressed, Saturday Night Fever teems with metaphors of psychological and social projection, and it brings a new form of precarious masculine performance into play. Meanwhile, what was noticeable across a range of audience reactions—from audible snoring, relaxed beer-drinking and talking to smartphone use—was the way in which the non-picture foregrounds audience performance. Andrea once remarked that you don’t simply look at a work by Lawler: you are addressed and interpellated by it. A Movie spawns forms of audience performance without making grand claims about activating or emancipating the spectator. 

While the piece can obviously related back to various avant-garde attacks on the cinema and the filmic image, as a performative intervention in the cinematic apparatus it can also function as an anticipatory critique of much later relational and “social” art practice. Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn allegedly once bowed out of a project with the malapropism “Include me out!”, and the paradoxical effect of A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture is that it does indeed include the spectator out. Or does it exclude her in? If, referencing Louise’s phrase Why Picture’s Now?, we ask “Why A Movie Without the Picture now?”, this gently insidious quality would certainly have to be part of the answer. 

Eric raised the issue of the term picture itself, which is obviously both very specific and heavily connoted in the context of late-1970s art practice. Why the “picture” (as opposed to, say "image") in A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture? We did not get around to fully addressing this, and as usual a lot of loose ends remained. I will continue to work on this piece and the aim is to end this “Performance in Residence” project with a small publication. Many thanks to Louise, Andrea, Eric, Frederique Bergholtz, Tanja Baudoin, Ann Goldstein and the Stedelijk staff members and everybody else who made this possible—including the audience members.