Wrestling With My Father: The best four and a half minutes you'll spend at the movies this weekend

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The title character
  • The title character
I laughed more during Charles Fairbanks's four-and-a-half-minute video Wrestling With My Father (screening this Saturday at the Nightingale as part of a program of Fairbanks's work) than I did during the entire 110 minutes of We're the Millers—and I cared a lot more about its characters too, even though all they do is watch high school wrestling matches. I make this comparison not as a slight at mainstream comedy on the whole (I don't find Wrestling funnier than The World's End, for instance), but to highlight the crucial role that humor plays in Fairbanks's videos. Many spectators reject experimental film and video out of the false impression that it's all theoretical and humorless, though a wide range of U.S. experimental filmmakers have employed humor as part of their cinematic experiments—Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, Owen Land, Robert Nelson, and Lewis Klahr being the first five names that come to mind.

Even the title of Wrestling With My Father is something of a joke. It suggests the sort of self-important psychodrama that viewers antipathetic to experimental video would dread. But no, Fairbanks means it literally. The movie opens with a static shot of his father, sitting on the aluminum bleachers of a high school gym, his eyes glued to a wrestling match happening offscreen. Fairbanks blacks out all but the center third of the frame, so that there's little space beyond his father's beefy physique. There's little breathing room in the shot, but Fairbanks's dad manages to fill that too, as he gets so wrapped up in the bout that he moves his legs, and ultimately his entire body, from side to side. It's funny to see such an imposing man dart in his seat like a little boy—and the claustrophobic frame heightens the sense of contradiction.

After a minute or so of this little study, Fairbanks cuts to another one. It's a different match, and there's a different audience around him, but Fairbanks senior is wearing the exact same outfit and jittering in exactly the same manner. He remains squared off in a little rectangle occupying the center third of the frame. In this next shot, Fairbanks introduces us to another character: his mother, who's as much of a delightful cartoon. She stands behind and to the side of her husband, her body tense, responding to the match with shocked expressions and sometimes putting her hands over her cheeks in worry. Even in the reduced frame, Fairbanks presents two lovely bits of pantomime. It's like something out of a silent comedy.

The next shot emphasizes the connection even more. Another match, another audience, and Mr. Fairbanks is still wearing the same damn outfit and fidgeting like a kid. Mrs. Fairbanks is there too, putting on the same outsize expressions of worry. Yet the overall effect is different than that of the previous shots. With these repetitions, Fairbanks junior has subtly created a sense of constancy. We sense the bond that's kept this married couple together. Like Buster Keaton and the neurotic women he'd wind up with in his films, the Fairbankses accept each other's quirks and get along swimmingly. If you've watched Fairbanks's 33-minute short Pioneers, made the previous year and also screening this Saturday, you know just how quirky these folks can be. If you haven't seen Pioneers, the joke's still funny, which says a lot about Fairbanks's comedic chops and knack for composition.

Pioneers is one of the most poignant things I've seen all year. You can watch it at Fairbanks's website—but, as with all movie comedy, it's probably more enjoyable with an audience.

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