The Dominator by James Welling, english
SADOUL : Was your apparatus already called the cinematograph?
LOUIS LUMIÉRE: I do not think we had already baptized it. Our first patent, taken out on February 13, 1895, did not adopt any particular name. In that patent we merely referred to ‘an apparatus for obtaining and showing chronophotographic prints.’ It was not until several weeks afterwards that we selected the name Cinematograph. However, my father, Antoine Lumière, thought the word Cinematograph was impossible. He was persuaded to adopt for our apparatus the name of DOMITOR by his friend Lechère, the representative of Moët and Chandon champagnes.
SADOUL : What was the meaning of that word?
LUMIÉRE: I don’t exactly know; it was a portmanteau word devised by Lechère. It was probably derived from the verb ‘to dominate’–
dominator – domitor. This name was never accepted by my brother or by myself, and we have never used it.
In Tova Mozard’s Cowboy Russ, the eponymous narrator speaks directly to the camera, recounting a story from another film The Magnificent Seven. In the earlier western, an ornery old cowboy defeats an arrogant youth despite the fact that he has a major disadvantage, unlike his opponent, he has no gun. The story is a classic tale. And Russ tells it with cheerful pride.
Mozard’s video is set in a modest Los Angeles apartment. The living room is almost empty: a suspended overhead lamp illuminates beige walls, a table and a few neatly stacked boxes. The entire tape is straightforward and economical. The camera movements are deliberate, and as with all of Mozard’s work, it is beautifully composed. When the tape (and Russ) begin, Russ is lying on his back on the carpeted floor, his legs spread. Then at a certain point, he leaps up as he mimics the movements of the old cowboy he’s describing. The camera follows him as he paces back and forth and then back down to his prone position. As the story reaches its climax, Russ jumps up to reenact the knife throwing cowboy rising for the final confrontation. He remains standing for the rest of the tape.
When the story ends, something unexpected happens, the scene keeps going. Instead of ending it as Russ clearly expects her to (he whispers “cut” a few seconds after he finishes his lines) Mozard keeps the camera running. Russ tenses. Where is the “cut”? He is clearly annoyed but, as a professional, he must stay with it, he must remain in character. Mozard’s conceit is as old as cinema: Don’t stop shooting, see what happens.
What “happens” in the next 100 seconds is a remarkable tranformation. By extending the shoot Mozard begins a new confrontation in real time. Unlike Russ’s narrative “cowboys duelling” Mozard’s duel is the structural opposite of a shootout. Whereas in the earlier part of the tape Russ gleefully describes a shootout in which a third cowboy calls “draw,” Mozard’s “draw” isn’t immediately clear. When did she begin this duel with us. Only just now or when we agreed to watch her work? Did she simply forget to turn off the camera? Is she away from the set? In an instant, however, we realize that what she’s doing is intentional and confrontational. For almost two minutes Russ stares at the camera, swaying in his final stance. It’s a game of “chicken.” Who will blink first?
Until this point the viewer has watched passively as Russ tells his story. We have stood behind the camera, with the director. We have followed Russ’s story and imagined the scenes based on his description. Some of us may have seen The Magnificent Seven and can recall the actors and the movie itself. Others might think back to The Seven Samurais on which The Magnificent Seven is based. We are taken in by Russ’s narrative, as narrative “takes us in.” When Russ stops speaking and Mozard keeps going, this congruency of viewer and director abruptly ceases. We’re thrown out. We’re confused. We go from standing with the filmmaker to being rudely pushed to the other side of the camera. Our sympathies go from the director over to the actor. Why does the camera keep rolling? Why is she doing this? In the blink of an eye we move from internal narrative time to real time, real uncomfortable time.
I opened this text with the anecdote about the naming of Cinema in order to make a case for Lumiére Pere’s name, “The Dominator.”
Mozard’s Cowboy Russ is about domination: about being dominated by the cinematic apparatus and by the director. Mozard pretends to be playing this out with the actor, but it’s really the viewer she’s playing with. Do we get it? Can we take it? Who wins?
As in much of her work, Mozard presents an unflinching look at the demimonde of film and theater in order to force us to look at ourselves. Are we playing by the rules? What happens when the rules change, and no-one calls “cut?” What then?