This review is a follow-up to last week’s “Fringe Cinema” column on Damon Zex. Read last week’s column here.
Along with Yoga, Damon Zex’s other passion is chess. He had begun playing the game at the age of five and renounced it after winning a state championship years later. After emerging from a creative hiatus, Zex returned with his 27 minute film Checkmate.
Checkmate represents a return on many faceted levels. Zex labored long on Checkmate and that labor paid off brilliantly. Checkmate is Damon Zex’s diaphanous train wreck that one simply cannot look or turn away from. It is horrifying, perversely amusing, unbearably intense, highly contrarian, and Damon Zex at his most quintessentially bizarre. Even knowing Zex’s previous work will not prepare the viewer for for this, despite it’s being that seemingly inevitable bookend to what came before.
When making Checkmate Zex knew fully well that he risked propelling even his most ardent admirers into that incessant squirming, uncomfortable plateau. But then, Damon Zex is hardly one to rest on laurels, nor is he one to cave into conservative, expectant formulas to appease a fan base. The Checkmate that emerged after Zex’s self-imposed silence is the equivalent of an artist clearing out his own mothballs.
The first 2:50 of Checkmate
Everyone involved with Checkmate knew Zex was onto something special and different, even though a videographer friend, frustrated with the film’s static qualities, wanted to change it and chastised the artist for breaking the “101 basic cinematic principles.” Indeed, Damon Zex is breaking even his own orthodoxy in Checkmate, but with an overwhelming sense of clarity. The long, sustained enveloping pauses are sharply cut with richly complex compositions which could almost be described as inducing cubist headaches.
The bulk of Checkmate is juxtaposed to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, and Zex is one of those artists determined to take Mahler back from the music fundamentalist who have claimed the composer as solely their own. Alban Berg proclaimed the first movement of the Mahler 9th as the greatest in all of music. Arnold Schoenberg gave an impassioned
defense of the phantasmagorical, surreal, sensual Mahler 7th against that reprehensible, conservative music critic Olin Downes. In more recent years, filmmaker Ken Russell produced a delightfully unorthodox film, while avant-gardists such as Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna have proven to be Mahler’s aesthetic offspring. Damon Zex joins this unique clique and returns us to the meaning of a true Mahlerian edge.
One of the first images from Checkmate depicts Damon watching his earlier, anti-Utopian, Orwellian Television is Watching You. Encased in a blackened area that almost looks liquefied, Damon Zex juxtaposed against a televised Damon Zex feels like a perverse, masculine, saturnine, ghostly William S. Hart facing himself in dual roles. The frozen expanse of thickened blackness is delicately, enigmatically penetrated by the timbre-like pthalo blue light emanating from the television set. Zex’s Chessmaster is the fragmented romantic narcissist, a hermit awkwardly seated before his own image. Even in this pregnant pause, there seems a level of fierceness that simulates energy, slowly rising to the surface. This nightmare abyss surrounds five symbolic chess boards…
Damon Zex on Checkmate:
The first chess board represented masturbation or solipsism. The second chess board was the foundation of the ego casting its gaze upon the lowly human race. Within the realm of the third board, I saw the summation of the dialectic created from man and woman. The fourth chess board symbolized time itself, echoing the ticking of seconds across the chamber surrounding it. Finally, the fifth board evolved from a two-dimensional, white/black matrix into the chaos of color which rearranged itself into a sentient, techno-organic life form supremely powerful, bending my will to its psycho-magnetic commands.
Over the years, I had created chess sketches expressing the megalomania of the mastermind who creates the unspoken strategies of the little people hopelessly bound to the board through metaphysical nonsense, routine, and social conformity.
I was exactly playing with a slowly building tension, moving to the music, very slowly, and dealing with a repressed emotional scenario. Yes, in a manner it is very much in keeping with a true yogic removal from emotional self indulgence. Like Mahler, who monitored his own heart rate throughout the end of his life and knew the tight rope he was walking.
Checkmate touches on the concept of elegance, a style statement, but also overstimulation and sexual repression. It counterbalances the notion of solipsism with desire for the image.
In Checkmate there are geometric relationships between characters, duality, singularity, inhuman and human aspects, and of course the notion of the game, it’s relationship to a male/female dynamic, and a parody of bondage, the sugar of this very medium. However, I will allow the thinking viewer to assemble all of that later. Usually we are programmed to exactly know what to expect in any TV show, movie, or performance. We know there will be emotional tension between good and evil, or we may be forced to watch the hero in a terrible situation, hanging onto the edge of our seats. In Checkmate I am presenting a relationship without real resolution in life, without a linear time line but paradigmatic nonetheless.
Damon Zex seems closest in spirit to the early surrealists, who were attracted to the thematic mix of scandal and eroticism, preferred narrative (albeit unorthodox narrative) to the avant-garde, were the ideological offspring of Tzara’s Dadaists, and were always primed for chaos (ie; Anthiel taking loaded pistol to the 1923 performance of Sonata Sauvage,which did indeed turn into chaos).
Naturally, Zex could never belong to any specific movement, even the surrealists (especially since the movement imploded and became caricature). But, Zex certainly identifies with the surrealist attraction to unpredictable danger and has also had his surrealistic defining moment. Rene Clair had his Entr’ Acte, Damon Zex has Checkmate.
Yes, this film was quite thoroughly thought out, especially in it’s composition, which has the shining translucency of a dark icicle. However, it is the final act that is an incitement to randomness, Zex thumbing his nose at the very notion of a rational universe, that is tragically alien to Eros’ love. This is what gives Checkmate it’s most potent and significantly surreal power.
Checkmate combines Zex’s obsessions for Dr. Strangelove, Chaplin, German Expressionism, 1984, sexual repression, domination, absurdism, control, hypnosis, megalomania, S & M, dadaism, television, media, color, monotony, static, conceptual art, performance art, extreme make-up, stylized theatrics, Mahler, Totalitarianism, French Cinema, Silent Film, Self Indulgence, restraint, emotional coolness, melodrama, The Apocalypse, perversity, creative trajectory, eros, mockery, spatiality, ying and yang, male/female, repression, dreams, the nightmare and so much more. Yet, he exerts supreme control over his art, astonishingly so. In investing so much of himself, Zex’s obsession, his desires, his disdain, all too keen awareness of his cult, Checkmate could have easily descended into aesthetic chaos, but he remains master of the balance and it is classic Damon Zex. Checkmate will indelibly linger on in viewers minds long after it’s over.
Damon Zex’s artist statement, and his recollections on creating Checkmate are highly recommended and encouraged reading. These can be found at http://www.checkmatethefilm.com/.