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Issue 140

Artefact: Mediums
by Jac Renée Bruneau

“Yo—bunch of bullshit, right?,” says TJ, a pouty, unemployed thirtysomething with a chinstrap beard and a Brooklyn drawl. He’s talking about a voir dire, a hearing to determine the competency of prospective jurors, and the event around which Mediums (2017) revolves. The grandfatherly Caucasian man, Gary, is like, “Excuse moi?” and TJ retorts, with deep resignation, “What’s the point?” Gary, again: “The point? The constitutions of the United States and the state of New York guarantee defendants in criminal trials and litigants in civil trials the right to a trial by jury. That’s the point.” He punctuates the period of this sentence with his glowing, blue-tipped vape, and when TJ says, “Why me? Why now?,” goes on to say that, “Potential jurors are randomly selected from lists of registered voters, holders of driver’s licences or IDs issued by the division of motor vehicles, New York state income tax filers, recipients of unemployment insurance or family assistance.” His know-it-all response at first bears the faint stink of mansplaining, but before long, we see that a “woke” jab at masculinity is thankfully not the project director James N. Kienitz Wilkins is here to undertake. Rather, Gary’s spiel (abbreviated here) is the first of seven—one from each character who finds themselves in front of a courthouse over the course of one business day. Four have been called to a voir dire, two are lawyers on site for different reasons and the seventh shows up at lunch time to try and sell his car.

This 38-minute film, shot on 16mm, is constructed entirely of medium shots, used most commonly in dialogue sequences, allowing the viewer to see the actor’s body language. The location of Mediums is assembled from three still photographs, each of which is rear-projected (giving it the warm ambience of a lightbox): two depict the building’s stone steps from different angles, and the third is of the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. Actors are posed in front of the screen, illuminated with standard, three-point lighting. The resulting visual discontinuity between actor and screen is to be expected; it’s by no means successful in convincing viewers that they are looking at a naturally occurring time and place. The seams of production are apparent but not in the way other films fetishize what’s otherwise deliberately kept behind scenes. The artifice here is subtle, seductively strange, unmooring and appropriately sets the scene for a surreal string of monologues.

The seven strangers are reticent to engage each other (the cell phone is used as a vague, inanimate prop to avoid conversation, which mostly doesn’t work), as strangers tend to be a result of both a generalized mistrust and a defence of one’s own time. Time figures heavily in the film, with an ostensibly gigantic, unseen clock face far above where the actors stand, which they turn towards now and again, to begrudgingly articulate to- the-minute countdowns to various deadlines. The opening shot itself shows 8:19 a.m. on a grey background. We watch for a full minute, until it turns to 8:20. It’s a familiar feeling, staring at the clock, in class or at work, waiting for the desired configuration of its hands (or pixels) to strike. In this way, Kienitz Wilkins forces us to feel time, imposing the discipline of monochronic time, wherein agreed-upon timeframes, appointments or bookings are made, and failure to comply is punishable. It’s the non-negotiable time of capitalism and it has significant bearing on how people behave and relate to each other.

Each character in Mediums has a piece of information to articulate, as well as one to hear—and there’s nothing colloquial about it. Someone who mentions they’re an actor, working on some “short films… student stuff, mostly,” gets an earful about the Screen Actors Guild/ American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Another, who expresses that jury duty comes at a bad time, explaining that he has a senile mother who is bedridden from a recent fall, gets the 4-1-1 on New York State of Health benefits for which he may be eligible. And even Gary, who is trying to open a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise, runs into a franchise lawyer who homes in on the fine print of the copy of the franchise disclosure document he’s carrying in his pocket. The unwitting, time-killing small talk that comes about in the interstices of regimented time in Mediums proffers a highly concentrated, hyper-specific redux of a primary source, precisely tailored to each character’s issue.

Flirtations with what is fact or fiction, original or derivative, representational or interpretive, are at the core of Kienitz Wilkins’ practice. Special Features (2014) starts with a man in a basic black button-up in front of a studio background, telling the story of a time he was catering some fancy event. Though he’s speaking as if straight from the horse’s mouth, the shot ends unceremoniously, and then a different man, wearing a basic black button-up shirt (the uniform of a caterer) picks up where the other left off. Eventually, a third man joins the cast, and all in, this has an effect so quietly beguiling that one actually can’t be sure what the point is, except to say: this format, commonly used in documentary practice to centre a primary source, is not immune to infidelity. Such probing into the epistemology of the primary source is taken up again in Public Hearing (2012) which reproduces—in the form of a feature-length film—the entire transcript of a public hearing in Allegany, New York, around the proposed expansion of a Walmart into a Walmart Supercenter. Kienitz Wilkins, who clearly has a productive fascination with bureaucratic process, takes this record of a real event, and transforms it into a wryly comedic, satirical microcosm of America’s socio-economic woes, through tone-setting interstitial shots as well as through the actors’ dramatizations of the actual participants.

Mediums’ kooky characters are not, though they may seem, people talking to other people, but conduits for institutional data, and the narrative, mere connective tissue for its delivery. The film expounds the disembodied language that institutions use to explain what they do, by having laypeople voice those texts (which were probably never meant to be read aloud). This has the effect not only of materializing the cool distance of the entities that govern, regulate and support us, but also of drawing our attention to all actors in all scripts—on screen and otherwise—as mouthpieces for someone else’s master plan. However, because of the sincere function this data serves for each character, this film might not merely be thought of as a rendering of an artificially intelligent future, where everyone speaks like they’ve downloaded a headful of internet data but, perhaps more darkly, a good dream about how productive small talk could be in the deep recesses of late capitalism.

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