Art is in an interesting place right now. For years we’ve been hearing comedians lament that so-called “snowflakes” and “political correctness” have killed comedy – an argument easily countered by the fact that plenty of comedians manage to be funny without offensive content or generate laughs by using offensive content in more inventive ways. We’ve seen films such as Gone With the Wind removed from streaming sites for depicting the attitudes of their time. Yet we seldom hear any such effect on less consumed artistic expressions such as contemporary visual art or experimental theatre, both of which by their very nature as less consumed, “fringe” artforms often push the bounds of taste far beyond any considered by mass-marketed mediums. Even as other art forms are just now grappling with the idea of what is allowed in art, these avant-garde pursuits long ago settled on the answer of “everything.” It’s this theory, that everything is allowed in art, which is at the center of writer/director Lars Henrik’s latest release Performaniax.
(In the interest of full disclosure it should be stated here that Henriks and I met a few years ago and communicate periodically. To his credit, Henriks himself asked for an honest critique of his work and I am attempting to do so.)
Following a horrendous and retroactively hilarious audition, Performaniax centers around Emily, a young actress who longs as many starting artists do to create something beautiful and profound, something perfect. Intrigued by the repeated appearance of strange pixie-looking woman, Emily is soon offered another audition before a contemporary theatre troupe with an odd reputation and a stack of cash. From here, Performaniax unfolds in an enjoyable if not-unexpected way, with its setting of a performance art experience allowing the film to address several topics far too taboo for either more mainstream artforms or more mainstream films themselves to even consider.
Without giving away too much, the actual Performaniax show is an interactive theater experience similar to McKamey Manor set as several stations designed to push boundaries on what is widely acceptable about topics such as race, homosexuality, menstruation, sex, and death, with the performance itself serving as a sort of “safe space” for both audience and performer to examine their own limitations and why they have set those limitations. As such, watching Performaniax is at times a very uncomfortable experience, particularly in its decidedly harsh statements about these topics, bringing us as a film audience closer to the fictional theater audience. It is also to its credit that the script, or at least the English translation, manages to deliver offensive ideas without relying slurs or “shocking” language while also keeping its content within the narrative conceit. This show is meant to push buttons, and the discomfort we may feel watching is exactly what the audience of the interactive show is meant to feel. Yet our place as audience-outside-of-audience leaves us immune to the intoxication which often comes from a live performance. In its own quietly brilliant fashion, Performaniax recalls the Stanford Prison Experiment with the fictional audience placing blind faith into the performers. After all, it’s art, and everything is allowed in art. Similarly, the “race” station is so ridiculously specific (even tying in the pseudoscience of phrenology) and the “homosexuality” station has such generic hatred as to lampoon people who sincerely expound such garbage. Nonetheless, it is nearly impossible not to judge these characters by the way they act outside of the show.
There is often times a difficult balance in critiquing independent film, particularly those created on a very small budget from a different cinematic culture. As with live theater itself, certain limitations are inherent in the form, thus making it nearly impossible to determine whether the cause of problematic elements are limitations of the art (in this case restrictions on time and money) or limitations of the artist. For Performaniax the main problem comes in generally rushed characterizations, especially in that of Emily, who transitions from skeptic to believer so quickly that it doesn’t feel natural. We are given justification for it, yet those moments feel too brief for the viewer to fully internalize. Similarly, while the rest of the characters are established, certain inconsistencies arise, such as one character’s casual removal of an animal’s heart followed almost immediately by a scene of her profound regret over another such act. As well, the interaction central to the heart scene is completely forgotten the next time those two characters meet creating an inconsistency in their relationship. Now, given the barebones approach of microbudget filmmaking, and the breakneck pace of Performaniax, these and other troubles could be attributed to the aforementioned limits on the film itself, but it would strengthen the film if we got to spend a little more time getting to know these characters, seeing how they bond with each other (beyond an almost perfunctory drug trip orgy scene), allowing us to become intoxicated by these characters in the way that the theater audience and Emily herself are. The main achievement of James Tobeck’s 2008 documentary Tyson was that after 90-minutes of hearing Iron Mike’s thoughts the only logical solution is to bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear. It would be great to feel that same investment at the conclusion of Performaniax.
And yet, that may not be the point. As a film audience we are by our nature distanced from the experience on screen. We are not participants in the way theater audiences are. We do not influence the flow as comedy audiences do. We are not in control the way video game players are. We are passive, only able to control how we react to the experience presented to us. In Performaniax we have the distance to be offended, to be skeptical, to critique the actions on screen. It is our obligation to decide what we will allow in our art. A film itself has no meaning or value other than that which we place upon. If we are offended or invested, we are giving it power. If we feel nothing, we are taking its power away. The power of Performaniax is that it makes us question why we grant art power over ourselves. Why are we offended by a comedian’s words or the characters of an 80-year-old film when neither of these impact our actual lives? It is our anger which gives them power. Otherwise they’re just clowns. Of course, I could be wrong and Performaniax could just be a horror-comedy in the tradition of Freaks or Troma movies, but it’s to the film’s strength that it inspires such discussion.
As a film, Performaniax has its flaws. As a filmmaker, Henriks has ideas and themes which elevate his films beyond their flaws. While it would be nice to develop these ideas a bit more, Performaniax works as a meta-commentary on the role and place of art itself, and how much we as an audience are willing to except from it. Whereas a filmmaker such as John Waters, who works on similarly low budgets, has pushed boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries, Henriks asks us where we set these boundaries, why we set them, and whether we should allow them to be pushed. What is acceptable even as art?