John Porter, Superstar


Jewison Superstar is one of the funniest things I've seen, though I'm not completely sure why. It consists of a promotional super-8 trailer for Norman Jewison's movie version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Porter has replaced whatever soundtrack it originally had with himself singing the title song, but replacing "Jesus Christ" with "Jewison." His singing has the intent-but-distracted quality of a child's. It is graceless, charming, and seems totally oblivious to its gracelessness and charm. The voice simply plows through the promotional trailer, invoking Jewison's name in place of the Son of God's.

Jewison Superstar could be read as Porter poking fun at the insistent claim that Jewison's middle-brow, vaguely liberal Hollywood product somehow constitutes Canadian cinema. Well, sure — as the author of the previous sentence I can sympathize with that sentiment. (And I have to admit after reading about Porter's adventures as a Ryerson student, I'd love to see him turned loose at the Film Centre.) But the pleasure I take in the piece (glee) is, in some measure, watching Little Auteur detourn Big Auteur's work against him in a single gesture that is in equal parts deft and clumsy, smart and puerile.

In some ways Jewison Superstar is a strange choice with which to begin an essay on Porter's work. It is an anomalous piece in his over-300 title oeuvre. Any kind of direct polemics in a Porter film is rare. I'm tempted to say the work tends to be devoid of rhetoric as well, but I'm not sure that's a reasonable claim. Instead I'll say that the rhetoric employed by Porter tends to be completely transparent. There are no rhetorical ploys or deploys. There is (generally) no trace of parody, satire or any of the other tropes one (okay, I) would normally need to keep my attention and interest up. There is also no irony in Porter's work. In fact, one could make the claim that Porter's oeuvre is a place where irony cannot exist.

The main reason for this is that individual Porter works, whether or not they could also be characterized as structural or conceptual,[2] tend to be transparently heuristic. That is, they follow a procedure, a simple set of instructions, which become self-apparent to the viewer as the work unfolds. A film that is no more or no less than the direct fulfillment of its self-apparent premise exists on an epistemological plane which could go by the name "evidence."

One could say Porter's work is evidence only of itself; it is self-evident. More precisely though, it is evidence of two things. First, one can trace back, usually with some confidence, and formulate the heuristic from which the film is derived. That is, we can determine the generally indeterminable set of ideas sometimes referred to as "authorial intentions." So, it is evidence of the usually untenable category "authorial intentions." (Actually, they would be more accurately referred to as "textual intentions.") And secondly, the films are evidence of the results of the particular fulfillment of the heuristic that constitutes the film. Here is where a central irony (or paradox, even) lies: we can only begin to realize an author's intentions when they are completely externalized, that is, removed from any sense of being or consciousness.[3] So the point where an author's intentions and (textual) desires can begin to be realized, to coalesce out of a work, is also the very point where the author's being or consciousness recedes and disappears.

In this respect Porter's work is a radical refusal of interiority. It erases all traces of a desiring consciousness and remains not only mute, but stubbornly dumb.

1. There is a somewhat Romantic notion that divides great artists (and an artist is nothing if He is not great) into two categories: the genius who thinks and suffers in equal measures and bequeaths to us the products of his suffering (Beethoven) and the pure, natural artist who neither thinks or suffers, but simply creates as easily as one breathes (Mozart). If it seems I'm leading up to the claim that Porter is a natural, pure artist, well, I'm not. (As a postmodern, capitalist artist I've replaced thinking and suffering with shopping and sucking.)

2. For instance, the scanning works with their complex treatment of filmic space, their literalization of camera movement, etc., seem as if they might be ripe for the type of philosophical analysis afforded other conceptual film — say, Snow's. Yet any direct engagement with philosophical concerns seems beside the point when discussing Porter's work. Many of the works seem, on the surface, to be conceptual, but Porter resolutely keeps us on the surface. He seems to accomplish something I would have thought impossible — he curtails (I want to say disallows) exegesis or analysis of work that seems ripe for it.

3. But could these statements possibly apply to an author who shares with us his toy collection, as Porter does in his Toy Catalogue series?