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The Humourously Tragic

An Interview with Jon Sasaki

By James King

Jon Sasaki lives by himself. The 33-year-old, Toronto-based film and video artist is the creator of all things noir and natty–right out of his 20th floor abode in Parkdale. As a newfound lone star after leaving the Instant Coffee collective in the spring of 2007, his first solo show at the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1 (CCLN1) reveals his well-hidden dark side, a penchant for deadpan humour and rejecting the typical cinematic experience.

Broken Pencil: Your film work fits into the ever-increasing trend of tweaking digital technology to recreate an old fashioned, classic style of film noir. What’s your reason for doing this?

Jon Sasaki: It’s about the comfort and familiarity of the film noir style. The message can come through clearly when people are familiar with that language. I’m fond of digital culture. It’s an homage to noir. I’m not sepia-toning my videos; it’s not about that. It’s about recreating real-time events. For example, the silent film star Harold Lloyd actually climbed up skyscrapers rather than pretending to against a blue screen. Just like in my video, Ladder Climb (2006), I’m climbing up a ladder for real. That’s important to me. There’s some authenticity to it.

BP: How are your videos an extension of what noir has already done?

JS: You can never completely replicate something; we filter the world in different ways. I’m using different technology (not a black and white silent film camera), and I have contemporary sensibilities and layers of other baggage. There’s also context: my videos aren’t meant to be screened before an audience for 120 minutes in a theatre. They’re non-narrative vignettes in a gallery situation. They couldn’t work in a movie theatre; they wouldn’t make sense. In many cases, the shorts have a nihilistic repetition that doesn’t progress to any resolution. It’s an endless loop.

BP: When does nostalgia start to creep in?

JS: I’m nostalgic for a shared cinematic experience. I didn’t grow up watching film noir in the ’80s; I grew up watching Star Wars, Gremlins and Back to the Future (actually, the doctor hanging from a clock in Back to the Future is a direct reference to Harold Lloyd, so maybe we grew up with silent movies without really knowing it). While my video work directly references silent movies, my show at CCL1 cites film noir. The cross-section is in the pessimism: it’s about failure and ability. It’s also about alienation, the alienated anti-hero in film noir, the silent alter ego who is always out of place. There is always that sense of displacement. Instead of always directly being influenced by the silver screen era, I’m interested in visual artists who use silent film in their work too, like the British video artist Steve McQueen who recreated Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and called it Deadpan (1997). An entire house falls on him, and just because he was standing where an open window fell, his life was saved. It’s about that sense of awe. It’s about being moved by something that you know has not been done with trick photography.

BP: In your artist’s statement, you say, “The humourously tragic, deadpan one-liners are vector points for charting the boundary between bravery and stupidity that keeps one dreaming impossible dreams in spite of one’s better judgment.” What’s the dream? What’s keeping you going?

JS: I’m pessimistic in general, but humour keeps me going. It’s a recurring element in all my works. It comes from that builtin possibility of that cinematic happy ending. Out of every film noir film I’ve seen, there has only been one or two that actually have happy endings: John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), and Delmer Daves’ The Red House (1947). That, and maybe me too.

Jon Sasaki’s next solo, Wishing for Three More Wishes, is at Gallery TPW, Toronto, June 22-July 24, 2007

Jon Sasaki, Recent Work

“Jon Sasaki, Recent Work” is a DVD with six slapstick shorts you can also watch on his website: He speaks up to Broken Pencil on the stories behind the silent shorts.

Ladder Climb, 2006, HDV, 1:50

Set outdoors in an open concrete area, Sasaki tries to balance a ladder on nothing. He then tries to climb it. Over and over and over…

“It goes back to qualified pessimism and the practice and possibility of success. It is part one in a series; every year I plan to remake that video with hopes of climbing an unsupported ladder over and over. I’m making one this summer, so you might see me in a cast this fall!”

24 lbs, 2006, HDV, 1:54

Sasaki strenuously holds a 24-pound anvil over his 20th floor balcony, trying desperately not to drop it for almost two minutes. With his face he makes every constipated look you could ever imagine.

“Oh my God, I couldn’t sleep the night before shooting that film. I was fully aware that if I dropped that anvil, it would have totally landed in my superintendent’s lawn. I was afraid of killing someone with it. It’s about holding back; I learned that containing the violence is almost more stressful than releasing it.”

Fireworks, 2006, HDV, 2:05

Set in a white cube art gallery, Sasaki lights a firecracker and tosses it under a glass box. Flickering every shade in the spectrum, it putters to a stop, keeping the audience in suspense. Will the glass box explode from the contained heat, light and smoke?

“Yeah, this is the only piece where I didn’t shoot alone. Well, I did shoot alone, but I had three of my friends there holding fire extinguishers behind the camera. It’s about the act of being a culture worker in institutional confines.”

Worrydolls, 2005, HDV, 3:03

Worrydolls are thumb-sized dolls made of wood and cloth. Popular in Latin America, if you’re given a worrydoll, you’re supposed to tell the doll your worries and they take them away. So typically, worrydolls are highly inactive creatures. They sit calmly, like librarians. But throw them into a subwoofer while Latin pop plays, and they bounce around like teenyboppers on sour keys.

“Okay, this is my one indulgence in unbridled optimism video, even though I’m a worrier for sure. But I worry about selfabsorbed things, not genocide and the environment. I stay up sometimes until 4 or 5 a.m. worrying; that’s actually why I became an artist: so I could sleep in until 1 p.m. When I was 12 years old, I thought being an artist meant sleeping until noon and taking three-day weekends, but I haven’t had a weekend in three years! I think I was misinformed by my elementary school guidance counselor.”

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