Loop Sided

Sloane McFarland's video paean to Homer and Joyce is excruciating, captivating

Those images fade into a slow-motion, nighttime cafe scene, over which ethereal, kazoo-sounding music inspires a sense of expectation and dread. Cut to a Halloween party with Cat Woman and a dancing vampire. Fade to a segment called "Spine," in which McFarland's real-life father has been cast as an aging security guard ensconced in a guard shack at the entrance to Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. The camera focuses on the melancholic guard methodically straightening a sheaf of paper, then switches to a fax machine and a car whizzing by the shack's window, as his disembodied voice intones, "Mother, where are you? Wish you were here." The voice, tinged with sorrow and regret, reels off the guard's poignant history as an aerospace engineer with three children who's been laid off, fired, divorced. "The horizon started moving," says the guard of his constant relocations, including one to Phoenix.

At various points throughout the video, both recognizable and anonymous figures from Phoenix's social landscape appear like alchemic apparitions, then melt away: John McCain being interviewed about his capture in Vietnam; Susan Goldwater, wife of the late Senator Barry Goldwater, talking quietly on a phone in her home; the Thunderbirds walking down the fairway at the Phoenix Open; Bishop Thomas O'Brien in black and red robes at a high school graduation ceremony; mall denizens pondering their surroundings; prostitutes cruising Van Buren; droopy roller skaters taking their last loop at a rink before closing. The cast of characters, who follow some baffling, unspoken script, changes continuously and inexplicably, their cameos following an internal logic and rhythm all its own.

Is McFarland daunted by the fact that most people may not stick around to watch the entire sequence of videos? "You're going to be bored sometimes," he advises straightforwardly. "To be honest, I was bored sometimes reading the Odyssey, but that's an essential part of the form. It's a dare in a way."

A scene from Sloane McFarland's laptop odyssey, "PHACAEANS."
A scene from Sloane McFarland's laptop odyssey, "PHACAEANS."

Perhaps it's the chimerical, ungraspable quality of McFarland's emotive, visceral work, as well as its sheer visual beauty, that saves it from being dismissed out-of-hand as yet another tedious, recycled, neo-conceptual video project -- or maybe just the cinematic musings of a madman who never touched a camcorder until three years ago.

Despite its burdensome length and free-for-all structure, Sloane McFarland's video succeeds in sucking us into other people's heads to witness voyeuristically mysterious, surrealistic snippets of life and dreams through their eyes. It allows us to eavesdrop on their thoughts, minds and hearts.

Granted, wading through "PHACAEANS" does involve elements of challenge and endurance, just as does reading Joyce's ponderous Ulysses or following Odysseus' exhausting journey through those strange, hostile lands. But, after seeing "PHACAEANS," you're left with the very same lingering impression: You may not understand a lot of it, but you know you've experienced something important and thoroughly original.

"PHACAEANS" runs through Saturday, May 20, at ASU Art Museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center on the ASU campus.

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