Suffering And Structure
Text by Travis Diehl
New World Agency™
Of all the suffering characters in Diego Marcon’s films and videos, the moles must suffer most. Not the forlorn soprano singing in a thunderstorm; not the family of four recounting their murder-suicide; not the children huddled in the corners of a fascist monument or sick in bed.
Although it’s true, a couple of the moles are sick in bed. Dolle is a scene from the lives of four moles, a nuclear family, spending a quiet evening in their burrow. Two children wheeze and cough in their tiny bed, struggling through the night, while their parents recline by the fireplace, going over long reams of printer paper lined with faint figures. They rattle off, in chirpy Italian, eight sets of 53 numbers, totting them up—wrongly, but positively. Then they start over, and arrive at a different, equally wrong sum, just as satisfied. The moles have no eyes, although they’re reading, making this a blind accounting, fastidious in form but practically inane. The little chortles of their offspring and their own cackling punctuate their litany. The procedure has displaced gravity, like the moles are Santa Claus checking naughty and nice, or, the adult version, Saint Peter reconciling the saved and the damned. The future of this family hangs in the balance of this pointless chore, whatever these floating numbers signify, whatever getting it right would accomplish. Probably nothing. They’d just do it again anyway. The film itself loops seamlessly, so you might not notice when their count starts over or when the whole piece does. The characters are animated with an uncanny lurch, almost like Claymation, yet their silky fur moves too smoothly for that. They’re animatronics, programmed to perform a routine, and filmed like actors. The list is like a script, and they’re running it blithely, blind as fate. There is suffering here.
Marcon’s work brings some levity to the heavier emotional registers—it’s playful work—and that much more serious for it. If anything, his work has grown progressively bleaker. Before Dolle, Marcon produced The Parents’ Room (2021), a deadpan lyrical saga of a father who murders his family and then himself. Earlier pieces center on the tender melodrama of childhood; gradually the family as a whole emerges as Marcon’s main subject. Yet technical challenges and structural conceits often inform Marcon’s projects more than plot or character. The conventions of storytelling are the flesh and costumes applied to the armatures of filmmaking, and in this respect, the heteronormative family unit serves in Marcon’s world as social structuralism, a preset to work against: People (creatures) living in close quarters, producing one another, defining themselves by reproducing this cyclical situation.
The libretto of The Parents’ Room goes into detail, not gory, but quotidian—as the father strangles his son, he notices a button missing on his pajama sleeve; as his daughter fights for survival, he remarks on her blue nail polish. Another grotesque flourish, the dead are singing their own song, matter-of-factly, without much drama, mostly sadness, and the aimless mood is reinforced by the whole maudlin performance of it, the father delivering lines like “I oughta say, now that it’s done / I took the life of my little son” just as dutifully and melancholically as he dispatched kids, wife, and self.
At first, to avoid the specificity of live actors, Marcon wanted to film the opera with puppets. In the course of production, he and his team decided to use actors caked with prosthetic masks and hands. This turned out to catalyze the piece—the actors struggle to convey their emotional range through the constraint of this makeup, the doughy children’s mouths open like fish, they’re corpselike indeed; the father’s face slouches, one eye off center. All of which intensifies the pathos of what could be, horrible as it is, a cliché.
The other structural conceit of The Parents’ Room is equally important—the pause: the song itself, four verses, four deaths, lasts about three minutes; in the looping, gallery edit of the piece, there is almost another four minutes of footage in between each recital, in which the father sits silently on the edge of the bed near his wife’s corpse and looks at the window, where an animated songbird alights and, eventually, trills out the tune. The theatrical cut begins with a minute of this before the song starts; there are two and a half more minutes between when the father “laid down and died” and the credits roll. Marcon balances action and absence in a way that seems ponderous, because it’s realistic. We see an aftermath, a glimpse, in real time, as if the animatronics or puppets or made-up actors are there in person and there’s no cutting away.
The ratio of darkness to picture in the 35mm short Monelle (2017) is particularly heavy. The vast majority of the film is dark. We’re given only brief flashes of action, where a studio light floods the stark stone interior of the old fascist regional headquarters in Como. These blinks of choreography structure the work and convey its brutal logic—in each sharp pop and cooldown of the flash, we see girls sleeping in the crooks of the architecture, while ghoulish CGI figures comped into the film play murderous games; a body thuds off the mezzanine, the darkness masks what sounds like something being dragged. These girls—why are they sleeping, why here?—seem threatened, innocent, exhausted—maybe by the burden of symbolizing youth three generations after Mussolini.
The thing is the darkness. The black footage that comprises most of the film, broken by eerie, flash-lit vignettes, isn’t blank film, or black film stock, but film exposed to the darkness of the Casa del Fascio in Como. Marcon’s technical choice turns out to support the work’s philosophy. It would be a different film, but what envelops the viewer in the gallery or theater isn’t the mere absence of an image but an image of total shadow.
The darkness is structural. Innate—as if we’re born with it. Maybe this is why so many of his films and videos feature children, suffering, as if in the first blush of mortality. This sentiment has its fullest flower in the perverse despair of 2018’s Ludwig, a short digital animation, a music video, of a boy singing of his wish for death. The camera swings wildly in the storm as Ludwig huddles over the light of a match.
Oh Lord am I exhausted
I feel so low and blue.
I’d like to kick the bucket
Then it would all be through
Then the pitiful flame singes his hand, cuts the song short, and the loop starts over.
While each of Marcon’s projects comes with specific technical, structural conceits, the loop is constant. Many of his films and videos have both theatrical and looping edits; but the fact that even the theatrical versions comprise as much plaintive time as action accentuates the dramatic irony always haunting characters captured in moving images: they seem not to know it, but their story always ends the same way. In 2017 Marcon debuted a pair of short, looping 16mm animations: Il malatino (The Little Sick Boy) shows a kid in green pajamas, snoring under the covers. The other, untitled film depicts a girl with long hair and no face whipping around as if startled. Like Ludwig on his loop of woe, slung back to the start every time he strikes a basic note of hope, the loop keeps the sick boy bedridden, the startled girl spinning in circles, traps them in this liminal moment of fear, possibility, uncertainty. They’ll never recover and they’ll never succumb.
The structure came first, too, in a suite of five cameraless animations from 2015, called Untitled (Head falling 01, 02, 03, 04, 05). Marcon was curious as to what sort of piece he could make with the length of 16mm film required to loop through a projector with no looping device and no slack. This is around ten seconds. From there he made hypercolor hand-painted closeups of faces on the verge of sleep, nodding off, then snapping out of it, then doing it again. Whether or not a given presentation has the projectors in the room or uses a digital transfer, the duration has the sense of fluidity curtailed—not so short or so long but constricted by the fact that the film strip can only be this length.
These animations mark the beginning of the looping, character-driven phase of his work, and a move away from the abstract documentary-style videos of the first part of the 2010s. It’s worth noting, though, the melodrama latent in one early piece in particular, a short MiniDV video titled TINPO (2006) (which Marcon will exhibit this fall for the first time). The footage shows a boy in a red shirt running around a living room, good-naturedly terrorizing his family with a toy handgun, holding it to a woman’s head, holding it to his own. Marcon edited the video so that short clips repeat, imposing a jittering, caught effect on the raw home movie. It’s easy to see TINPO’s intimation of the tensions built into the more highly constructed, fantastic films, especially The Parents’ Room; but the toy gun in TINPO is more ominous than the accomplished murders or lingering illnesses in the later works, simply because it lacks the same degree of structure. The editing and the horseplay feel unhinged, whereas even a structure as grim as a murder-suicide of a family of four makes a certain sense—there’s an almost musical pattern to the madness—the story of a patriarch who sees no other exit from the loop of family life except a hackneyed disaster.
If you’re deterministic about fate and free will, Marcon’s structuralism starts to emphasize what cinema says about time and its limits, or our limited allotment of it. Marcon takes up forms like narrative and opera, cartoons and the family, and perverts them on their own terms. He layers them so that each phase of suffering perverts the other, each form or system or constraint offers an escape from the others, and so on, on a loop. Which is itself perversely reassuring, like your fate in the parental claws of moles.
DIEGO MARCON (b. 1985, Busto Arsizio, Italy) primarily focuses on moving image. His practice centers on the investigation of cinematic archetypes in a process combining theoretical and structural approaches to filmmaking, with the sentimental attitudes of popular movie genres. His works—spanning film, video and installation—often utilize a looped structure to articulate an emotional display that flirts with the pathetic aspects of popular entertainment and simultaneously draws attention to the media itself. Throughout Marcon’s work, empathy and vulnerability are deployed with intentional ambiguity, such that the instrumental use of their forms and figures constitute a blurred morality. This ambiguity is viewed by Marcon first and foremost as a political weapon of defiance.
TRAVIS DIEHL is a writer and critic living in New York. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times and a recipient of the Rabkin Prize in Visual Art Journalism and the Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant. He is Online Editor at X-TRA. Recent poems appear in Forever and The Baffler.