In her new experimental documentary The Grand Bizarre, Jodie Mack finds dignity in the midst of commodification, bringing joy to an exploration of the textile industry. At the heart of her film are fabrics, in all their many forms and patterns, as they traverse the globe: In suitcases. In trucks and cars and trains and planes. Floating in the wind on a clothesline, picked up and sold in markets. Taken into the ocean by the tide. They are always moving, bought and sold far from their makers, far away from the artists that designed them. In just under an hour, Mack evokes the grand spectre of capitalism as a machine of de-individualisation, a thing that turns anything personal or human in origin into an object for the market. But to suggest that The Grand Bizarre is a condemnatory film would be disingenuous, because Mack’s technique belies that political veneer, instead focusing on the absolute fun and ecstasy that is imbued into each of these textiles. By the time the credits roll, Mack has succeeded in giving life and agency back to these artworks and, by extension, the people who made them.
Fire is the first image in The Grand Bizarre — one of the few not chopped up and animated. It’s a reminder of the earthly, the natural and unconstructed: a grounding of what follows. From there, Mack’s film is a cavalcade of colourful images and stop-motion animation, with gorgeous patterns popping in, out, and across the frame to a constant barrage of whimsical electronic music that mixes the usual bleeps and bloops with sounds of transport and, most pertinently, distorted human voices. That last element of the soundscape seems key to Mack’s vision — the human transformed into the mechanical; commodified into an object to be used without ever becoming fully “other” from what it was.
Writing on Christopher Doyle’s little seen directorial debut Away with Words (1999), Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summed up globalization nicely: “…the ugly truth about globalization is that it isn’t cosmopolitan. It’s an empire of sameness—factories, corporate campuses, luxury items—that uses capitalism as its lingua franca.” In The Grand Bizarre, we never learn the origins nor destinations of these fabrics, which adds to the homogeneity of which Vishnevetsky speaks. Their incessant travel and displacement is clearly signified in Mack’s brief-but-directly-analogous montage of “tribal” lower back tattoos: symbols once specific and suffused with culture now transmuted and appropriated into homogenous embarrassments for white people. But by never letting her film be anything less than exciting and funny, Mack crafts the perfect counterpoint to this dispiriting new world. These are not just things. They have been crafted, imbued with whatever large or small meanings their makers brought to their designs. Their essential being remains plain and worthy of consideration.
The Grand Bizarre will be playing on 7 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Kai Perrignon is a Melbourne-based writer and filmmaker. He has the appropriate amount of self-loathing for someone who is both of those things: a lot. His Twitter handle is @memoryendowment. His Letterboxd is his name.