Radical Acts of Flyness
By Jorge CotteNovember 1, 2018
The opening sequence in episode two, “two piece and a biscuit,” is an example of Nance’s penchant for unconventional, melodic editing. Its logic is engendered by an accounting detached from plot concerns. The episode revolves around questions of masculinity, gender performance, and public displays of intimacy or affection, and begins with an encounter/twist on street harassment. Najja fends off street harassment outside her apartment and in an arcade game “Kekubian Assassin” (which, fantastically, has a mobile game version). Then, Black men catcall each other, lovingly, in a scene that converges in a group hug which in turn is supplanted by a video collage of found footage of Black people expressing affection (physical embrace, daps, elaborate handshakes). A series of documentary subjects reflect candidly on their relationships to gender and their bodies. A bilingual musical short film adapts Peter Pan to Black boyhood and growing up. It’s difficult even to narrate what Nance does with narrative here. Random Acts of Flyness isn’t “hard to follow” in a traditional sense. Rather, it asks viewers to follow in ways that seem unfamiliar, uncanny, in narrative art.
Unlike traditional complex TV serialization which foregrounds “forward-moving accumulation of narrative statements,” episodes of Random Acts resist conventional narrative comprehension and instead orchestrate a dialogue of feeling. The elements of Random Acts don’t add up to a resolution, a thesis we can debate or a neat character arc that delivers catharsis, but they do converge as imbricated strands and intensities. For me, this sequence nourishes questions within and outside my own experiences (How do street harassment and other racialized and gendered aggressions threaten Black women’s energy on a constant basis? What possibilities do masculinity and gender open and what possibilities do they shut down? How does an alternative masculinity feel? How is affection restricted and mobilized for care or violence? How do we learn to see ourselves through gendering screens and how can we learn to see ourselves outside of them?). While there are narrative elements present, they don’t strictly follow any chronology but are cut, spliced, and cut again throughout, blurring the boundaries of each fragment into a culminating sense of familiarity.
Terence Nance is probably most well-known for his independent film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and set the groundwork for his untethered approach to storytelling. The film begins as a story about unrequited love but builds an ecosystem of questions about relationships, masculinity, and the ethics of art based on real life. An Oversimplification showcases Nance’s independence from any one genre or video medium, and includes “confessional history, animation, archival footage, interviews, self-documentation on the film festival circuit, and even fragments of a film by his beloved.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody described the film as an “intricate collection of frames within frames,” that uses an earlier short film by Nance to pose a series of self-reflexive questions in a “kaleidoscope range of registers.”
Initially, Nance was approached to produce his take on a news show; instead, he unearthed a concept he had developed in 2006 and began compiling seemingly disparate works of art he had already created. OneFifty, a WarnerMedia incubator, provided Nance a grant to create a proof-of-concept video that eventually became the pilot episode (if you haven’t seen it, it is available online for free, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen). However, Nance’s sensibility, this kaleidoscopic and fragmented process, is evident in his early work. His images were already finding new directions in the liminal spaces.
Random Acts arrives on premium cable television in the environment of what Racquel Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie called a “contemporary American moment of renewed attention to black film and media.” One might easily use this flourishing of Black visual culture to weave a story of representational and creative progress culminating with Moonlight’s Oscar win and the critical and commercial successes of Get Out and Black Panther. But despite this flourishing, Blackness on film is still too often discussed in terms of positive/negative representation, taxonomical staging of race, or social reflection (evaluated for its accuracy or realism). In his book Film Blackness, Gillespie advances the eponymous term as a methodology against readings of “black visual and expressive culture” as “impermeable” or essentialist. In an interview with artist and experimental filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson, he defines the problem in a question: “why do people go to the place of actuality when it comes to black folks visualized?” Gillespie advocates a practice that embraces the “potentialities and surging frequencies” in black film, that is “motivated by capacities” and by looking at Blackness as “multidimensional and multidiscursive.”
Random Acts, through its multidimensional depictions of blackness and disruptions of cinematic coherence, embodies a direct response to essentializing, taxonomical construal of Black visual culture. The untethering from a recognizable formula, from any genre or media, and even from the borders of segments, imbues the show with a feeling of open-endedness. It questions the virtues of coherence in a way that generates new connections, new life for the images, and new relations between them and us. The writers-directors of the show, drawing from the topologies of Black lived experiences, have created an affective archive that shuns deterministic narrative meaning in favor of a launching platform for innovative potentialities, improvisations, and “unanticipatable content.”
The manifold experience of watching Random Acts emerges from its leveraging of distinctive artistic voices and a non-deterministic vision for what the show should look and feel like. Even the show’s structure, which one could describe as (almost) having distinct segments, is mostly placeholder and frequently violated by the show’s cuts and splices. “There isn’t a goal from our perspective in terms of how the experience should be structured,” he explains, “it’s kind of post-form.” From within the outlines of a television show, the artists of Random Acts indulge a democratizing impulse in seeing their ideas realized.
My encounter with Random Acts bears a resemblance to Nicole Fleetwood’s concept of “digital assemblage.” In contrast to the traditional coherence of cinematic assemblage, digital assemblage uses cuts and shot composition to “challenge the seamless ‘stitching up’… that characterizes classic cinematic identification.” Digital assemblage might use “splicing, layering, and compositing,” and insert “‘found’ materials and disparate images” to “disrupt the cohesion of a normative cinematic ‘shot’ or ‘scene’.” These kinds of tactics are found throughout Random Acts, most evidently in the video essays and montages, but also the way segments are bookended, interrupted, and diverge. The show continually makes seams visible (to borrow another term from Fleetwood), leaves connections and causality as doors propped open, and deprioritizes the cinematic and prestigious with juxtapositions of poor images, found footage, and animation. Despite Nance’s claims that Random Acts is not experimental and intended as a rewarding “narrative experience,” the show continually challenges our preconceptions of “how films ‘work’.” The shifting tones, genre, and media, flexible linearity and sampling, and metanarratives illuminate the way Blackness troubles cinematic narrative cohesion.
Although Random Acts' reception has been predominantly positive, it has been interesting to see viewers and critics try to make sense of a show that diverges from traditional guides of sense-making. Due to the lack of obvious cultural counterparts, the show has been discussed in the company of auteur-led Black TV shows like Atlanta and Insecure or noting the absence of an obvious serial hook, have likened it to sketch comedy or variety shows, such as The Eric Andre Show and even In Living Color. While it would be easy to praise Random Acts as a project announcing the arrival of television’s next auteur and describe the show as a dive into Terence Nance’s subconscious, I think it’s limiting to overlook the show’s uncommonly ensemblic production.
Attending to the show’s credits is instructive: the vast majority of episodes of television feature a single writer and a single director (occasionally shows credit two writers on an episode). Through its first season, Random Acts averages more than four directors and more than five writers per episode. Providing a platform for decentralized and marginalized vantage points is integral to the show’s ethos, and that begins on the page and behind the camera. It’s not just that the show prioritizes the expressions and actualizations of Black women, such as Naima Ramos-Chapman, Frances Bodomo, and Mariama Diallo, all of whom are independent filmmakers in their own right, but the coordination of all those distinct stylistic voices is what allows the show to breathe in ways that would be restricted by a single voice.
The pilot episode moves from selfie video to public access children’s show, a montage of found footage soundtracked by incongruent Christmas music, and a slick commercial – the distinct formats and image qualities flow into each other without breaking step. The effect, at first disorienting, is deliberate; settings, media, and mood shift from one image to the next, and the show’s range and strangeness have led some to include Random Acts in what critics are calling a contemporary Afro-surrealism moment, alongside Atlanta, Get Out, and Sorry to Bother You. Nance has pushed back on that impulse, citing Martin, Chappelle’s Show, and In Living Color as shows that explored surreal concepts. Still, he has described the collaborative experience of the show as driven by the writers/directors’ “shared subconscious” and attempts to engage their “most free-associative selves.” While Random Acts seems to be angled differently from the mainstream appeal of Get Out, there is something to the sense of freedom and self-awareness the show enacts that is often attached to surrealism.
The shifts in tones and textures between segments on each episode of Random Acts work like nothing else on TV because ultimately there is no diegetic roadmap – these can’t be reduced to a character’s dreams or channel surfing from another dimension. This lack of roadmap has generated comparisons to variety shows that Nance has rebuffed, though he compared the “tonal familiarity” with Ja’Tovia Gary’s experimental film An Ecstatic Experience, explaining that they both sample from older expressions of the variety show. Gary’s film also makes use of animation and rapid intercutting, recomposes old footage, and rides the “affective compounding” of music and multiple temporalities.
The interaction (between images, incongruent media, imbricated contexts, stories, and temporalities) opens the space for what Rafael Lozano-Hemmer identifies in his own art as “relational,” a staging that’s not trying to build consensus or prompt an action/reaction, but a network and a platform for the unscripted, or what escapes scripting.
In episode two, the variety of black visual and performative depictions grappling with gender, intimacy, and navigating the world put a deterministic resolution out of reach. The episode reaches a climax with Wendy’s (Le'Asha Julius) vocal decrescendo imploring Pan to fix his father’s sins, found footage of two Black men kissing, and Alok Vain-Menon discussing gender dysphoria as a structural element of gender. This sequence creates an emotional response through the confluence of these affective fragments. There’s not a real resolution, healing or undoing of the struggles depicted. But there is a felt lucidity, an affective after-image of the fragments converging without combining. The fragments ring and resonate outwards.
It often seems that Nance, like Arthur Jafa (who appears several times throughout the series), is not merely manipulating images but the “gaps” or “flow” in between, like “banks of a river.” Take the montage from episode two, “The Art of the Dap.” It orchestrates found footage, poor images, and historical media clippings into a “sonic visuality.” Like in Jafa’s Love is the Message, the clippings recontextualize and flatten the distance between images with various levels of public circulation, attention, and care. In “The Art of the Dap,” through “critical modes of cutting and coverage,” aggression and affection are intertwined like the bodies portraying them. The first embrace of found footage is one of the most arresting because of its lack of timidity and it is mirrored in “Nuncaland” when Pan (Kevin A. Rivera) enters Captain Hook’s (Djoré Nance) apartment. There’s a line between these expressions of affection and play and the encroaching threat of masculine performance. Bookended by more direct discussions of gender as a structure of oppression and the violence that maintains it, what do these scenes of intimacy entangle or disentangle? The blended scenes are not just interruption, but counterbalance. They provide a space under patriarchy/gender’s not-quite totalizing violence, a space to see out from under it.
In a discussion of the role of criticism, Lauren Berlant described recontextualization as “an opening in the direction and force of matter, mattering, and interrelating.” Throughout episode two, seemingly disparate images are put in conversation (video game aesthetic, documentary selfie, magical realism through musical, and historical footage of Black Panthers dapping) through cuts, interruptions, and imbrications, and disrupt what Kara Keeling identifies as “film and television's claim to be indexical media technologies.” The space between camera and subject, screen and reality, reemerges. Nance’s sampling, splicing, and mixing is a kind of aesthetic recontextualizing, one that also “opens foreclosure against its own promise of interpretative and affective rest,” it keeps the gaps between the images flowing.
Finally, I want to return to the pilot to outline two scenes in which the show resists the conclusiveness of conventional television through meta- and extra-narrativity.
The first image we see on Random Acts is a selfie video of creator Terence Nance outlining the episode while riding his bicycle. Though the scene initially resembles a sketch show introduction, like Dave Chappelle’s stage-setting, meant to anchor the show, this comparison is immediately deflated. The parallels between Nance the artist and Terence-the-character (he is often shown working on the show) call attention to the show as a crafted artwork, undermining the presumed authority of a showrunner (and the show itself), and his involvement in “making meaning” and providing answers. In this vein, the show embodies Terri Francis’s approach to afro-surrealism as nothing so concrete as a genre or ideology but a lens that defamiliarizes and denaturalizes. Take, for instance, the commercial from episode one, “White-Be-Gone”. Midway through its run, the commercial is “interrupted” by a discussion between the commercial’s lead (Jon Hamm) and the director (Michael Potts). It’s a scripted moment that draws attention to the commercial’s artifice, but the commercial is trailed by footage of Terence-the-character discussing with his assistant director whether they’re focusing too much on white people. The moment dredges up questions (about where a Black artist’s efforts are best allocated, or about the value of preempting critique even though we already saw the commercial) but never resolves them or claims to have an answer. Terence’s vulnerability and self-reflection are mirrored in the show and presumed omniscience of the screen.
The other scene that recurs in the pilot is “Black Face.” In these segments, a sequence of Black faces are featured against a black background. They are photographed from the shoulders up under cool, neutral lighting. The subjects don’t appear to be actors or models. The portraits are self-possessed but unexpressive, they (drawing from Tina Campt) “hum and vibrate” quietly. Occasionally, the sequence will present an image of a “black collectible” or instance of blackface. The audio, Nance’s voice identifying which images are Black faces and which are counterfeit, announces the segment’s intents: reclamation of “Black” + “face”. Presented in succession Black faces and depictions of blackface, accompanying signage becomes superfluous; it’s clear how blackface, as the term is typically used, represents a grotesque caricature, as Cedric Robinson called it, a “feigned blackness,” counterfeit and violent. The sequence defamiliarizes the “black” in “blackface”. The “Black Face” scenes have no plot or obvious insertion to the rest of the episode, they merely appear. “Moments of black slow or black quiet …freaks people out,” Kevin Jerome Everson says to Gillespie, “because it’s not telling them what to think.” In episode two, the same video portraiture style is revived for a new context. Black and face are recontextualized in “Black Face” which finds a new context and new content.
In Random Acts image objects come into contact and fly in new directions. Near collisions make and leave spaces in their affective aftermath, surging capacities make their presence felt. What are we to make of these gaps, seams, and in between spaces? Perhaps it is the virtual appearance of what Gillespie feels facing the potentialities and generative creativities of film blackness. Perhaps their feat is just that; to clear the way of deterministic and essentializing frameworks and make space for something new to flourish. If like an experimental film Random Acts is struggling and challenging to make a “new kind of sense,” we might find it in between spaces, in the gaps and new relations. Perhaps they are like Kara Keeling’s analysis of Frantz Fanon’s interval. Before a film, Fanon waits, anticipates seeing himself onscreen, feeling the weight of near-totalizing racist imagery. But the interval as Keeling confronts it is not a pit of resignation but “an opening,” unprotected, and a challenge to open thought to the “unforeseeable, the unanticipatable… Perhaps a whole other reality…”
Jorge Cotte is a writer living in Chicago.
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