The Multitude of Visible Things: The Videos of Dani Leventhal
[Originally published in Cinema Scope, Issue 47, Summer 2011]

After my first encounter with a number of the overwhelmingly powerful videos by Dani Leventhal, I wondered if she was the fulfillment of a long-standing wish of a certain strain of filmmaking (and cinephilia): the dream of the obsessive cinematographer, filming every aspect of their life in hope of obtaining… what, exactly? Enlightenment? Immortality? "If I put it on film... I should get it all," says the eponymous subject of David Holzman's Diary (1967). On first seeing Leventhal’s work, I thought I had discovered someone who just might have “got it all”; and while she had she seemingly filmed every part of her life, the sheer volume of footage is superseded by her uncannily keen sense of composition and selection, capturing the truth of each moment—whether heightened or quotidian—to a degree that few others have captured before.

But after spending more time with the work, I realized that I had it all wrong. Leventhal’s videos are not the triumph of an all-seeing subjectivity but rather an effort to reduce the barrier between her and the rest of the world, whether human, animal, or inanimate. The surface subjectivity is often employed to reveal a more ambitious and nuanced project, as in a diverting and revealing scene in Skim Milk & Soft Wax (2008) in which, sitting at a café in Israel with her father, she focuses not on the fraught Israeli environment but on an equally unknowable landscape: her father’s eye. Leventhal’s off-camera voice is filled with amazement as she exclaims that his pupil is not round, and once the camera moves in close enough we see that her father does indeed have a somewhat feline, slit-like pupil; meanwhile, he laughs and says, “I brought you here to have the Israeli experience, but you just want to film my eyeball… Danielle, this has no meaning. No meaning whatsoever.”

Images of eyes recur throughout Leventhal’s work with even greater frequency than in Sergio Leone’s films, and within the context of the video this moment emphasizes a recurring theme that, when it comes to Israel—and perhaps the world at large—Leventhal’s father sees things differently than she does. But after viewing a number of Leventhal’s other videos, this scene begins to take on a more resonant meaning, and indeed offers a key to her work. Belying the videos’ autobiographical address, the insistence with which Leventhal focuses on the eyes of others (both human and animal, living and dead) indicates that one of the aims of her project is a desire to explore and understand how others see—including the camera itself, which functions as both a channel for Leventhal’s subjectivity and an alienated, autonomous eye in its own right.

Leventhal’s peculiar, unexpected entrance to videomaking began in 2002, when, in the process of earning her MFA in sculpture from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she broke her hand in three places while working on a large sculptural piece that involved a harness and a boat winch. Trapped in a cast from this injury, she began editing footage that she had been shooting for various purposes over several years. Finding video to be a medium conducive to her interests, she went on to receive a second MFA in film/video from Bard College in 2009. This background in sculpture, and the ability to create form out of an accumulation of material, greatly informs her videomaking: nearly the inverse of Matthew Barney, who creates sculptural events but makes little attempt to craft them into cinema through attention to composition, duration, and other fundamental traits of the medium, Leventhal uses these essential elements as sculptural tools. Her works often feel as if they are chiseled and molded out of time; at especially unruly moments, the joins between shots can be so raw that splices are almost visible, even though the work is all shot and edited digitally.

In contrast to the slickness of much digitally created work, Leventhal’s videos gain an added power and charm because they are so unpolished: when Leventhal needs to use onscreen text for subtitles it will often obtrusively scroll vertically or horizontally across the image, instead of appearing statically at the bottom of the screen. This roughness ceaselessly forces the viewer to consider the work’s essential constructedness, not so much in a postmodern sense but in a way that restores a sense of the haptic to the digital-video production process. When Francis Ford Coppola declared that the new filmmaking technologies would allow a greater freedom for artists both established and emerging—famously predicting that a “little fat girl from Ohio is going to be the next Mozart,” now a clichéd maxim of the digital revolution—he did not foresee that they would instead only make it easier for filmmakers to create homogenized, “professional”-looking products. While Dani is far from fat (though she is from Ohio), she might perhaps embody Coppola’s prophecy—not by being the second coming of Mozart, but by finding ways to resist the wearying professionalism that has overtaken the Final Cut generation.

While Dani is often tagged as a diary filmmaker, the works as a whole complicate that term so much that it becomes ultimately rather unhelpful for understanding her project. At times, her videos can recall the way that Nathaniel Dorsky’s films spin the majestic from the mundane. Like Dorsky, Leventhal seeks out images with singularity and weight, alive to the immediacy of the moment—a moment that will never return. Yet while Dorsky’s work rarely strays beyond the local, Leventhal’s is often global and can, on occasion, leap undetected between cultures and locations (in this her videos resemble Warren Sonbert’s); while Dorsky aims for a state of transcendence through a sublime, almost Zen-like tone, elevated and apart from everyday life, Leventhal aims for immanence, for the roiling, beautiful mess of existence, documenting life from moment to moment through images both eloquent and enigmatic. Yet despite their palpable immediacy, Leventhal’s videos also exist within a long, vital lineage of filmmaker that can be seen as an examination of montage’s ability to create meaning. While certain passages in her work create a clearly articulated connection between shots or sequences of shots, in others the viewer is invited to invest him or herself in the search for that connection. Similar to Brakhage’s The Riddle of Lumen (1972), these moments present seemingly disconnected images that, upon further inspection, are playfully puzzle-like in their linkages, related by a colour, shape, or texture of light (in such sections the connections between Leventhal’s videos and her accomplished drawing practice are most evident).

While the word “poetic” is often bandied about in discussion of experimental films and videos as a means of describing a style or texture (like “romantic” or “lyrical”) rather than referring to the actual properties of poetry itself, a knowledge of poetic form might be a handier tool for dealing with the intricacies of Leventhal’s videos than knowledge of almost any other medium (including video). Shorter works such as Recitation (2007) recall a koan, while longer works can resemble the dense accumulation and whiplash modes of expression found in Alice Notley (see “Woman in Front of Poster of Herself”) or John Ashbery. The way in which Leventhal can shift the meaning of a shot by cutting to something unexpected, and then open it up in a whole new direction with a third shot, is very similar to what the great Japanese poet Fumi Saito does with the fourth and fifth lines of this tanka:

Dividing the wheat,
the place where construction is planned
has stakes pounded in—
like into thick animal skin
a needle being driven

The jarring juxtapositions that are so frequent in Leventhal’s videos bring to mind the guiding principles behind Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, with “cruelty” understood not as violence, but as an exposure of the truths that most of us overlook in the course of daily existence. Approaching situations that could potentially cause harm—whether it’s encroaching on the territory of a horned cow, handling dead animals, or baring one’s personal life—Leventhal evinces not fear but unblinking curiosity. She even interrogates this impulse in 3 Parts for Today (2007), which opens with a simultaneously astonishing and hard-to-watch shot of a fledgling lying on pavement gasping for breath; later in the video, Leventhal recounts that “it didn’t even occur to me to try to save that bird. It was just this beautiful footage.” Curious even about her own curiosity, Leventhal is able to create moments of overwhelming intimacy, whether lovingly caressing roadkill, candidly revealing her childlike playfulness while making a bed with a loved one, or getting head-butted by the aforementioned cow.

This shot of the fallen bird exemplifies a predominant tension in Leventhal’s work between the cold, dispassionate eye of the camera and the loving, empathetic hand wielding it (a dynamic that is directly addressed in 2009’s 54 Days this Winter 36 Days this Spring for 18 Minutes when Leventhal’s voiceover refers to a person’s “two selves,” one that is “crippled by emotion” and one that is “super-conscious”). It also points out a motif that has been in evidence as early as the extraordinary Draft 9 (2003): a tender study of animals (cats, birds, bears, and more), as often dead as alive. Even when dead, however, Leventhal endows these creatures with a vivified aura: treating them with reverent respect and gentle concern, she grants them a presence and a return to (some kind of) life. What becomes clear about Leventhal’s continual fascination with these animals is that, even in death, they confirm the simplest fact of life: existence.

With this in mind, the final sequences of Skim Milk & Soft Wax are some of the most pivotal in her work to date. While in Israel, she and her father encounter an extremist who pronounces that Arabs are “not humans…they are nothing but animals,” making clear by his tone of voice that he is not only denying the Arabs’ humanity, but their very right to exist. For an artist dedicated to acknowledging the existence of the other, this is too much to bear. Two final shots follow this confrontational moment, and Dani’s presence recedes increasingly in each. In the penultimate shot, she is seen at a keyboard taking dictation for her father (in a tightly framed medium shot that has most of her head out of the frame), while the video closes with her arrival back in the US, her off-camera voice heard over the footage of an airport landing field at night: “the strangest thing happened,” she whispers, “I lost my voice…this has never happened to me.” Within the context of this particular video, Leventhal is here elegantly showing her exasperation in trying to convey—and situate her identity within—what her father called “the Israeli experience.” When this passage is looked at alongside her larger body of work, however, it speaks to the overriding essence of Leventhal’s project: not a diarist’s intimate disclosures, but an almost Buddhist dissolution of ego. Throughout her videos, even at the most personal of moments, Leventhal’s voice merges with the world. And, in the end, everything merges with the night.

<em>Skim Milk & Soft Wax</em>Skim Milk & Soft Wax (Dani Leventhal, 2009)