Seeing a Horror Movie Through the Reactions of Its Spectators
By Melissa Stern
The best horror movie in New York City right now is Alex Prager’s La Grande Sortie, a 10-minute film playing on continuous loop at the Chrystie Street branch of Lehmann Maupin Gallery. The film is the latest entry in Prager’s oeuvre of cinematic and photographic investigations into subjects that tantalize and challenge the viewer. For those unfamiliar with Prager’s work in both mediums, it’s worth taking a brief journey into her previous work, which will bring the current exhibition into sharper focus.
A self-taught photographer, she began her career by making beautifully staged, highly dramatized photographs infused with the saturated colors of Southern California. Influenced by photographers such as William Eggleston and Cindy Sherman and by the Technicolor films of Hollywood in the 1950s and ‘60s, Prager’s transition from photography to film was a natural step. In 2010, she debuted her first short film, Despair. I must have watched it at least a dozen times when shown at The Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography exhibition in 2010. I was transfixed. In four minutes and 28 seconds, Prager tells a tale of love, loss, despair, and tragedy in the most elegant of ways. Everything about this film is tightly controlled, stylized, and brilliantly, beautifully fake. It set the stage for her following shows of photography and film, each more elaborate in style and delving deeper into the pathos of human relationships as well as an investigation into the genre of horror.
La Grande Sortie was commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet and filmed in the Opera Bastille Theater, starring French ballet star Émilie Cozette with a supporting cast of retired dancers and teachers from the ballet company. I won’t reveal too much of the plot, because it would spoil the film — and believe me, you want to see this film unspoiled. Suffice it to say that the film is indeed about ballet. The production values are superb; Prager has studied closely the lighting, camera work, and stylistic flourishes of cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Deep, dramatic shadows throw their cast across the screen, harsh light from below heightens the horror and drama in the story, camera angles are sharp, and the editing is fast.
La Grande Sortie develops themes now common to Prager, including a mesmerizing investigation into the nature of crowds: large groups of people that, Prager shows, are in fact small worlds unto themselves. This project, as with many of her previous, has a supporting cast of hundreds. In these crowd scenes she tends to cast people who are very distinctive looking — sometime ugly, sometimes eccentric, rarely beautiful. But the casting choices always underline the sense that while a crowd of people may seem anonymous it is in fact made up of hundreds of individuals, each with a story to tell. There is an odd and effective dance between the faces in the crowd: we move from our bemusement at Prager’s casting choices to the slow realization that all is not well with our heroine in the film. And there is a palpable tension between the portrayal of the seemingly innocent spectators — perhaps a metaphor for us, the viewers — and the protagonist.
Besides being visually interesting and often amusing (Prager often casts “types”: the businessman, the floozy, the sleazy guy) these mass groupings reinforce the purposeful artificiality of Prager’s work. It would be improbable to naturally find as many weird-looking people in a crowd as are in her universe. She never lets us forget for a moment that we are visitors in a made-up world, and there is never a pretense of reality in any of her work, no equivocation in her vision.
None of Pragers’ projects are shoestring budget affairs. She has embraced the Hollywood ethos wholeheartedly and made it work for her. The casts are big, the drama high, and there’s always a troubled dame at the center of the action. Her films also make extraordinary use of music. Like the cinemascope films of yesteryear the soundtracks swell and burst, carrying the audience along for an emotional ride. The score La Grande Sortie has been sampled from Stravinsky‘s Rite of Spring, (an already fraught piece of composition if ever there was one) and recomposed by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. It is stunning, and an equal match for the film.
The stills that accompany La Grande Sortie portray a theater as it is filling up with audience. They whisper, chew gum, look at their programs, and stare at the stage. The lighting changes in each photo (they are not hung progressively) so that in some we are looking at the eccentrics in the audience lit by bright house lights. In others the lights are dimming until finally we see, in two images, the room so dark that all that’s visible is the light barley licking the heads of several audience members, their faces deep in shadow. And in a final image, it is as if we the viewers were on stage, looking back at the audience as brilliant theatrical light blasts our faces. It’s an unsettling moment of recognition; this is what it’s like for a performer to step on stage. An audio loop of low-level ambient crowd noise plays throughout the gallery, a gentle backdrop to the photos.
These still images, which are on the ground floor of Lehman Maupin, set the stage for the darkened theater upstairs where the video plays. In this clever way the entire gallery has became a performance space. We enter and wander around, as if in the lobby of the theater, and then ascend to see the show with a sharply heightened sense of anticipation.
Prager’s fascination extends to a specific breed of horror film. A descendent of Alfred Hitchcock rather than Chucky or Saw, this is “horror” of a more genteel and perhaps more sinister nature. It is the emotional horror of our inner lives.
It would be fascinating to see what Prager might do with a longer story. On the other hand, I think that each of her films is exactly as long as it needs to be, and that is part of their great artistry. While opulent in visual impact they are in fact quite lean and focused in emotional content, making them all the more powerful. Like the best old Hollywood movies, I stumbled out into the bright daylight a little unnerved by what I had just seen. The only thing missing was the popcorn.
Alex Prager: La Grande Sortie continues at Lehmann Maupin (201 Chrystie St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 23.