Experimental Reviews

Money: A Slap and Stick (2020) – 5 stars

Director: Mimi Garrard

Cast: Austin Selden

Running time: 12mins

Mimi Garrard is an experienced filmmaker and choreographer, whose approach as to the portrayal of contemporary dance is to present the viewer with a kaleidoscope of multiple images of her dancers moving through time and space. At any point in a Garrard film, there might be from half a dozen up to an almost infinite number of images of a particular dancer competing for the viewer’s attention.

Some critics might have reservations about a director using the fundamentally same approach to different projects, but I do not see a problem in pursuing perfection within a particular style. Nobody really had a go at Piet Mondrian, a mediocre landscape painter, who after his discovery of the meta-language of geometric shapes and colours went on to produce variations of the same painting for the rest of his career – because the end results are rather beautiful. Similarly, I think Garrard has found a winning formula – and the results can be breath-taking.

Garrard’s theme in Money: A Slap and Stick is, of course, cash. In this case it takes on the form of a five-dollar banknote – the Great Separator in our world of haves and have nots. One of the key economic side-effects of the pandemic has been the shudder we all tend to feel when handling grubby – possibly infected – banknotes. This has accelerated the move to electronic payments;  a shift most people in the wealthier parts of the world have long made, nowadays seeming only to use cash to purchase illegal intoxicants. In a sense, the change might seem to make the film appear dated, but I think this suits Garrard’s purpose as the object is to evoke the monumentality of a bank note, the promise to pay by the State, while at the same time to locate the action in an ambience of early, silent cinema.

To this end, Garrard, who also designed the costume, has the film’s single dancer dressed in a kind of Pierrot outfit (barefoot, white t-shirt with horizontal stripes, loose trousers with braces, beanie hat). Garrard gives us the idea of a Trickster/Thief figure – a suggestion that is accentuated by the dancer’s sole prop, an attaché case as a late-modern swag bag. The quasi-period feel is heightened by the work being filmed in monochrome except for brief but telling use of colour near to the conclusion.

Money: A Slap and Stick opens with a musical introduction of plangent synthesiser chords – these continue to ebb and flow throughout the first section. The musical accompaniment is played and composed by Jonathan Melville Pratt, a frequent collaborator with Garrard. Pratt’s work is in three sections, and it drives and adds another dimension to the visual imagery that Garrard employs. We see four outer images of the Pierrot figure – superbly danced by Austin Selden, the choreography, which is excellent throughout, is credited jointly to Selden and Garrard.

As the four images define themselves as the Trickster the middle of the screen is taken up with the disembodied trouser legs and bare feet of the Trickster moving in dance rhythm with, above them, disembodied hands moving in unison. It is an extraordinary set of opening images. For your reviewer, possibly due to their misspent youth, it conjured up the Tarot symbol of Heads, Hands, and Feet – maybe not the filmmaker’s intention but nevertheless a powerful pictorial concatenation. The centre screen then shows a series of dollar bills which we assume have come from the Trickster’s briefcase, these seem to rise as a flower blooming caught by time-lapse photography – while the multiple side-images of the Trickster continue to dance and develop the character. On occasions, there is a fading down to black which is echoed by the rise and fall of the music, something which feels almost tidal.

Pratt’s music sets the change of mood of the second section – busy and industrious with hints of a back beat. The dance patterns of the Trickster are correspondingly more of a worker. Garrard lets rip – the bank notes take over in a swirling mass. Not being an avid user of US currency, I had to look this up – the note being used is the five-dollar bill with its totemic image of Abraham Lincoln. Garrard gives us a myriad of close ups of one of Lincoln’s eyes. The scene is well-crafted and is weirdly horrifying – we are looking at an all-seeing panopticon watching our every move when all we wanted was some cash to buy some candy.

For the third and final movement, the music settles to a melodic ambience and Garrard moves to pure psychedelia which resolves itself into multiple images of the Trickster and the all-seeing eye. In a subtle touch, Garrard adds flesh tones to the dancer’s heads, hands, and feet. The Trickster is then shown against the monochrome gigantism of Lincoln’s face – the pink flesh contrasts and focuses our attention on the strange contingency of mid-19th century fashions in male facial hair. A beautifully realised piece of cinema – for me it echoed Cary Grant’s epic battle amongst the Easter-Island-like presidential dolmen of Mount Rushmore. Superb.

With Money: A Slap and Stick, Garrard proves to be an innovative and accomplished filmmaker – this is indy cinema at pretty near its best. The only glitch that I noticed was there is a slight mistiming as to the marriage of the music and the imagery at the start of the final section, but this is no big deal. Otherwise, I was hugely impressed by Garrard’s abilities as an editor and cinematographer – the amount of work that must have gone into presenting the film in its final form is frankly mindboggling.

Like all art with a revolutionary edge, Garrard’s short films are not bound by traditional forms – one could quite easily view Money: A Slap and Stick as a poem, art installation or performance. What is certain is that the work repays further visits – I have watched it four times – both to tease out further meaning and for the joy of watching a performance. I am probably way off in some of my interpretations but that is the fun of viewing a work which is so disruptive of everyday reality – we all bring our personal baggage to the party. What can be more disturbing to our senses than to illustrate the sheer damned strangeness of money.

Any art that celebrates contemporary dance has to be on the side of the angels – a world where there is dance is a better world. Do try and catch Money: A Slap and Stick and do check out other excerpts of Garrard’s dance linguistics – several are available for free – at Mimi Garrard on YouTube.  

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