“Re-Framing Samuel Beckett”
Through their fundamental design, most artworks make us choose between embracing the values of high art or popular culture. An exception is Jamin Winans’ recent science-fiction film, The Frame (2014). In the film’s first shot, we meet Alex (David Carranza), a skillful cargo thief who is desperately trying to extract himself from working for a drug cartel. Alex stands motionless with his back to the camera looking out over the city. After we watch Alex successfully pull off a daring late-night, high-speed heist, a dissolve reboots the film for reasons that are not yet apparent to us. In a shot that echoes the film’s opening, we meet Sam (Tiffany Mualem), an EMT who is desperately trying to put her life of drug abuse and prostitution behind her. In Sam’s action segment, we see her endanger her partner’s life by rushing before the police arrive into a domestic violence crime scene in order to help a scared little girl whose mother lies unconscious.
At the film’s first turning point, Sam and Alex, each in their own apartments, begin seeing the other on television. Sam and Alex appear to live in alternative universes, where the other is merely a character on a television show. From Sam’s point of view, Alex is on a show called Thieves and Saints, which is nearing its series finale. Conversely, Alex recognizes Sam from her television show, Urban Hope. Thus, what we saw in the film’s first act was merely two different television shows, indeed the most generic of American television, from the two dominant genres of the medium, what media historian Thomas Schatz calls the cops and docs franchises.
The interchangeability of these television genres is as true today as it has been for many decades. The 1960s featured doc shows Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, and cop shows, Dragnet and Ironside; in the 1980s, St. Elsewhere and Hill St. Blues defined hour-long quality television. Today, NBC explores the city of Chicago over much of its prime-time schedule, with shows Chicago Med and Chicago P.D. By catching his two main characters in between the fields of force of television’s dominant genres, Winans is able to explore how melodrama appropriately helps us understand our experience of the world.
And then, after grappling with the meaning of the core of American popular television, Winans moves his film in a distinctly modernist direction. In emotional pain over Alex’s impending death on Thieves and Saints, which as a mere television spectator, she cannot help to stop, Sam goes in search of the conduit through which the broadcast signals are traveling back and forth from Alex’s world to her own. In a skyscraper downtown, Sam enters a non-descript office. After a banal exchange with a grinning, vacuous receptionist, Sam proceeds past her through another door. In the next room is a bizarre steam punk machine wherein a 19th century typewriter is connected to a massive array of light bulbs and cloth strips arranged into a narrative loom. When Sam discovers the typewriter outputting the last page of Alex’s show, and therefore ending his life, she grabs the script and begins scratching out the words describing Alex’s slow and painful death. Every time she writes new words to extricate Alex from yet another assault, the typewriter responds with more violence. After another chase sequence, the unknown forces behind the typewriter finally win, arranging to have Sam run down by a vehicle.
As with the opening, this reboots the film, this time back to Alex’s world. As he watches Sam in Urban Hope, he comes to the same conclusion as did Sam in her world: he goes downtown and enters the typewriter room. Instead of information about Sam, he discovers the script to the film we are watching, The Frame. As the script describes the very scene he is currently in, he turns around to look directly into the camera. This is a direct quotation to one of the great pieces of modernist cinema, Samuel Beckett’s only film, entitled simply, Film (1965), in which Buster Keaton is relentlessly pursued by a film camera.
The Frame doubles down on recreating the Absurdism of Samuel Beckett: as Alex tries to burn down the room with a cigarette lighter in order to save Sam from the automobile accident, the unseen force torturing the characters responds by constructing an invisible wall around Alex. Every time Alex tries to move, he bounces back off of the unseen barrier. This is also a direct citation, this time to Beckett’s play, Act Without Words I (1957), where an unseen stagehand terrorizes a lonely actor, depriving him of food, water, and mode of egress.
The Frame ends by multiplying the effects of its references to both popular culture and experimental cinematic and theatrical art. Toward the end, we come to learn that Alex turned to crime because his parents were brutally shot in front of him by the military in their native Guatamala. We see Alex as a young boy hiding in the closet clutching his beloved violin, peeking out as his parents are executed. After his inability in the present to save Sam from the car, he picks up his violin for the first time since his childhood, and begins playing. Doing so causes the car to glide harmlessly over Sam’s head. For the first time, they are alive and well in the same world. She walks over to his kneeling body, pats him on the head. The camera pans rightward away from them, ending the film. The Frame combines the language of generic television melodrama and Beckett’s theater of the Absurd to demonstrate how art can overcome the worst of human brutality. It is a science-fiction film unlike any other, using the trappings of the genre to interrogate the very nature of audio-visual storytelling.