the revolt of the extras

In last week’s New Statesman – the one that is dedicated to the proposition that Iraq is a blunder that has metastasized into a cancer – there’s a review of a piece by a video artist named Omer Fast. Fast’s newest work, Godville, consists of interviews with re-enactors at Williamburg contrasted with shots of American suburbia. Before this, Fast made a video in which he interviewed Poles who worked as extras on Schindler’s list.

Fast seems to have latched onto George Saunder’s territory. The insight, to put it crudely, is that we are not in the age of celebrity. We are in the age of the extra. The ontology of extra-hood has yet to find its philosopher, but in Fast and Saunder’s it is finding its poets.

We haven’t seen Godville, but we definitely hope Fast takes it to Austin.

“The war” might mean Operation Desert Storm, today’s Iraq war, or the American war of independence. “Independency” and “occupation” turn inside out and back again: Godville’s hybridised personae,
in their immaculate costumes, exist both as ex-colonial subjects and citizens of an occupying nation. The potential significance of the word “freedom” oscillates wildly: one of Fast’s interviewees (a Baptist
preacher in real life) “lives” in Colonial Williamsburg as a slave.

Another role-plays a moneyed housewife. “I only know this little window of what . . . my family and my children tell me . . . what little bit my husband might share with me of the world of politics and business,” she admits in a bitter tone, noting that “when you think about it, you feel like you’re being property and not human”. Time-wise, this comment becomes even more ambiguous when we see her burst into real tears over her three imaginary sons’ “deaths” in the war against the British. Working in Godville looks like it entails heavy-duty emotional
labour. Fast’s editing conjures a sympathetic but fraught and angry persona from his original material. Courtesy of rapid, nervous jump cuts, his subject’s yellow gloves are on her hands one second and lie in her lap the next. Her hands flash from one gesture to another in an incoherent yet bizarrely expressive semaphore. Sliding
between historical co-ordinates, her discontent cannot be anchored to a concrete cause. How could it be? She is not a “real person” but a (heavily overdetermined) symptom born of collective past and present circumstances.”

A long time ago, in the Moviegoer, Walker Percy noticed the reality deficit at the center of celebrity culture. That was back in the days of Kennedy. Ah, those rank and odious days that have never died, but putrified among us, a big gaseous giant strung out among a nationwide mausoleum of golden oldies and classic rock stations. The problem, though, is always taken up as though it is the celebrities problem. It is what journalism is mostly about. It is what politics is mostly about. It is the national desire. The desire not to be an extra. But LI is so tired of this desire. We’d like to see a revolt of the extras – some throwing off of our parasitism.