J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 10, 2014

2 By Decker: Butter on the Latch

Brooklyn hipsters always think communing with nature sounds great, but what if there is something sinister and uncanny out there in the woods? Frankly, it is unclear whether an emotionally agitated performance artist is running away from the malevolence or towards it. Either way, things are bound to end badly, but at least it will be underscored by some lively Balkan music in Josephine Decker’s Butter on the Latch (trailer here), one of her two pseudo-experimental features, which open this Friday at the IFP Made in New York Media Center.

After performing her latest theater piece, Sarah gets an alarming call from a friend who has been drugged and violated in a strange house, but perhaps that was actually Sarah. Regardless, after her empathic freak-out on the streets of Brooklyn, she suddenly decides to meet up with her friend Isolde at a Balkan Music Festival in the Northern California forests outside Mendocino.

At first, Isolde is surprised but happy to see Sarah. They laugh and catch-up, sharing some of the most sexually explicit anecdotes you will hear outside of a Zalman King movie. In fact, the energy and attitude of these sequences suggest Butter would have been a better film if it had been talkier. However, their friendship soon frays to the breaking point. On the surface level, the lunk-headed charm of a certain banjo player stirs up their jealousy, but there might also be a supernatural agency at work.

Even though Butter is just a tick longer than an hour, it is more about its atmospheric intangibles than conventional narrative. At times, it is flat-out pretentious and it is never slavishly hung-up on logic. Nevertheless, Decker conveys a powerful sensation of something messed up going on, just outside our field of vision. Although it is quite catchy, the Balkan music (dig those sideways trumpets) further reinforces the sense of otherness.

Butter is a film by performance artists, for performance artists, about performance artists. Yet, it is somewhat more watchable than it sounds. Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence develop a nice bantering rhythm together, giving Butter a greater human dimension than most narrative-challenging experimental films. On the other hand, it has more than enough out-of-focus shots of characters’ backs as they silently walk through the woods.

Indeed, it displays all the excesses one might expect from Decker (who gained notoriety disrobing during Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present performance at MoMA). Despite creating a powerful mood of foreboding, she never really takes it anywhere. Odd and rather raggedy, Butter will receive plenty of knee-jerk praise and be unfairly dismissed out of hand, but it is really just a somewhat interesting but wildly uneven attempt at radical paganism. Only recommended for hearty fans of avant-garde cinema, Butter on the Latch opens this Friday (11/14) at the IFP’s MINY Media Center in Brooklyn.

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