Artists' Television Access

Tender Muscles, Charles Fairbanks at ATA

On Thursday, Charles Fairbanks visited us at ATA with his short film program, Tender Muscles. The movies are honest and inquisitive, lovely and complicated. As the five unfold in succession– The Men, Irma, Pioneers, Wrestling With My Father, and Flexing Muscles— we get privileged insight into the recurring themes and puzzles of Fairbanks’s practice. It is a pleasure to see masculinity unpacked so gently, but most enjoyable is the work’s irreverent celebration of the mundane and the absurd. Idiosyncratic gems sprinkled throughout the program, from the chirping of the mechanical bird that opens Irma to the picture of Fairbanks’s father, dwarfed by a cornfield in Pioneers, lend a quirky poetry to these social portraits.

Wrestling With My Father makes a natural departure point for a closer look at these movies. It’s an early work, and many of the big questions of Fairbanks’s practice are present in it, if not explicitly articulated. It’s a series of long shots made during wrestling matches. The artist is fighting in the ring, and the camera holds on his father, who watches the match from the bleachers. Fairbanks senior was also a wrestler and he moves in his seat, fighting his son’s fight, willing him to win. It’s simple and clever. Watching it, we feel that intense vulnerability– both of the cameraman and his subject– that permeates the whole program.

Irma is perhaps the “hit single” of this collection. It has won screenings and awards at major festivals, and rightly so; it’s satisfying. Irma begins small and opens like a flower. In a very short space, the heroine, Irma Gonzalez, casts off the sympathy of the viewer and reveals her full power and vitality. One comment caught me, though: as Irma slams her ex-husband the “mandolin” (“big apron-wearer”, we’re told in the subtitles), she says that he was just like a woman, never following through. She says this surrounded by her young female boxing students, who do backbends and tiptoe deftly along the ropes of the ring. Because everything is thoughtful in these films, I wonder what are we to think of that comment, which falls just outside the film’s feminist stride.

My favorite film in the program, the one that had the most urgency to me, was the very personal Pioneers, a 20 minute portrait of Fairbanks’s parents in Lexington, Nebraska. This movie is so deliciously awkward. The shot hangs on a minute too long, everyone is nervous with the camera, the filmmaker is pained by his subject, and it just gives me goosebumps. There is one very exciting cut where a tractor swooshes into a bolt of lightning. There is also an surreal sequence based on a dream, set in a conference room with fluorescent light. The final image is Mr. Fairbanks on that lawnmower that you drive, running over the hillside, at dusk, with the fireflies.

The program opens and ends with men wrestling, and I think that’s where Charles Fairbanks is going now, into the ring, so to speak. The first piece is loose and rough and experimental. It’s about the physical intimacy of fighting, which is a brave subject to tackle (to wrestle?). The closing piece is more ethnographic, about identity in the Lucha Libre, in Mexico. I am interested to see what will happen when these two themes converge. Charles fights as a luchador in the personage of the One-Eyed Cat. I am eager to watch what insights will emerge as he explores the need for these rituals of fighting and role play, both culturally and personally.

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