Can there be a last version of Faust?
It’s a story with a long history and each generation has their own crucibles of pact and compromise. In Philipp Humm’s Expressionist exploration, The Last Faust (drawing, poems, film, and more), we are offered a contemporary take presenting itself via the narcissistic media of our age: social media and reality TV. Expectations are usually high for such an undertaking and the big ask is whether this work goes beyond just reflecting the issues, towards offering us more than a mirror of a mirror?
For the digital release of the work’s film component Trebuchet was offered the opportunity to view it in a screened setting, to be fully immersed, dwell in its bouquet and give its ambition full rein. And so with several canapés and a complimentary cocktail that’s exactly what we did.
The Last Faust is long. It feels long, and you have to work through it. It is not entertainment (in an intentional sense) and slips away from any easy mode of appreciation. The challenge for the viewer is picking a mode and seeing how the film works with interpretation. On the one hand it has the format of a film while also containing a suite of elements that would be more convincingly set in a gallery. However in both contexts the work would be alienating, as film asks us to locate ourselves with the story and art assumes our position as viewers. Perversely then The Last Faust seems to ignore the audience, playing its disjointed scenes in an episodic manner that neither connect nor enlighten. Clearly the work has layers, but the inward-looking nature of this symbolic play creates a claustrophobic experience which repels more than it fascinates. It’s as though you are Schrödinger’s cat experiencing several alien faces appearing as the lid is randomly lifted on your prison cube.
Viewing the work more strictly as film, the story’s treatment feels stagey and symbolic to the point of high camp. There are several set pieces when the audience is given a moment of clarity, where the tableau of characters or elements calcify into a scene. This sense of grounding is soon lost as conscious steps to be more ‘arty’ result in abandoned immanence as the audience is barrelled on into pastiche or parody. The trope of snapping the fourth wall while initially quirky becomes less rewarding as it becomes more predictable, and few films survive when an audience’s sense of anticipation is ebbed away.
As an artistic work, one might reference Matthew Barney’s notable Cremaster series where the balance of disparate surreal elements, tableaus and motifs are contained within the same flow. The problem with Humm’s work is that the audience struggles to find an entry point and thus narrative feels like exposition. We never feel Faust’s plight, we never commiserate, or damn; we merely watch and hope for something to reach us. This is of course the sort of glib reading that some might make as Humm’s intention, however to give the creator his due, Humm was likely searching deeper and it’s entirely possible that this film (making, showing, being reviewed) is part of a larger Faustian exploration which will reveal itself in future documentaries. We don’t know, and it’s not clear that we should wait.
In that respect Matthew Barney’s waxy, slightly LA-schlocky take on video art benefitted from not having a proscribed narrative. You just take it as it comes. Through its celluloid scenes of dream states we were asked to interpret and make meaning much as we would in any gallery. The crucial second layer of Barney’s work was to ensure that an audience of collectors and funding bodies considered it artistically rigorous or even convincing. A controversy that quietly subsided with subsequent Cremaster films, repetition and consistency being the arbiter of value in many cases.
Conversely, The Last Faust is a take on a story that we instinctively know (if few have ever read) and so the narrative suffers from an inconsistent, uncanny valley where our expectations jump ahead of what’s on the screen. This fight for ownership between auteur and audience is undercut by the film itself, which in rejecting familiar storytelling demands the audience work hard without offering much in the way of emotional stakes. This is a big ask and perhaps it’s with a sad sense of millennial entitlement that we tend to reject bombastic if flawed artistic grandeur on the basis that it’s a challenge. But would repeated sessions of The Last Faust really lead to reward? If we consider any of Tarkovsky’s audience-challenging films, no, but if we consider films like The Room (Tommy Wiseau) it just might.
So what will happen to this film? Crazy scenes, artistic pretensions, famous actors, nudity, incongruous budget, Stilton dialogue and bizarre direction all point to smoky infamy amongst the bonged-up midnight-matinee set of IMDb aficionados and on reflection, the more one considers this endeavour the more you feel some love for it. In a cinematic era of emotional drama, superhero cliches and Hobbesian period pieces there should be a greater level of support for films that are excessive and bonkers. As such The Last Faust is to be recommended with good company, a very light heart and an oceanic-open mind.