Portrait of the alienation of the art school of Martine Syms
Jhe African Desperate starts at the end: we meet Palace Bryant during the final studio review of its MFA program. The review is exactly what one would expect in a movie about a tall, tattooed black woman abandoned at a liberal arts college in upstate New York: as unctuous as it is pathologizing. “You are afraid of your own appetite. I see him. It’s a bit polite, isn’t it? an instructor named “M”, played by artist AL Steiner, notices at one point. What’s not quite as expected is that the camera doesn’t just cut out after Palace busts the last of the court out of his studio. Instead, he lingers with her. He watches her toss the wine she’d prepared for them and captures the tear rolling down her cheek as she nervously rolls a joint. “I like to show things you don’t often see,” the film’s director, Martine Syms, told me one recent afternoon.
The film is filled with the kind of cultural detritus we don’t often see in a feature film: pure art school, a full YouTube-style makeup tutorial, frenetic layering of memes, and water molly. Doing The Desperate African, said Syms, she was interested in “the mundane as a sort of dynamic space.” The drama of worldliness is at the heart of the campus experience, but Syms’ art school satire also aims for something more: the emptiness of an intellectual space that rewards symbolism, encourages careerism and fetishizes the elite world it claims to criticize. She and her co-author, Rocket Caleshu, have both completed MFA programs over the past decade – Syms at Bard and Caleshu in the CalArts writing program. In The Desperate Africanthe pair explore the unique mix of emotions such experiences can bring to unexpected, prismatic and comedic endings.
Alienation is particularly interesting. Palace is an island within an island – the lonely black woman surrounded by a cohort of infantile, insecure and oblivious peers. Because the school observes a low residency model, in which graduate students only have to be on campus during the summer months, the group roams a barren campus to do art, read theory, and swim in the lake. It is an atmosphere whose bucolic serenity is blurred only by the subtle but unshakable impression that Palace is in a state of absolute unease.
The Desperate African lives in this incongruity. The film condenses the last 24 hours of Palace art school life into a 99-minute walking journey. It takes us from the last reviewer’s deflating anticlimax, through the drug-filled bacchanalia of the final party, to the dark, contemplative, and hungover journey home. In this window, we see how the program, for Palace, is both an oasis and a purgatory. She is the most sought-after student, but only among those who seem to covet or envy the idea of her: a working-class black artist who has successfully infiltrated the elite art world. She has the time and space to work and indulge in picnics by the lake, but she can never quite escape the strange and sometimes painful awareness that the world she inhabits is at a distance. separate from most other aspects of his life. “There are a lot of things in life that I think are bigger than art, you know what I mean?” she tells her roommate, Hannah, at the start of the film, after revealing that she will be returning home to Chicago to care for her mother, who has lupus. “People here are like, ‘This is it, this is your life.’ And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not it! That’s not life. If you think that’s the case, I don’t know what to tell you.
Syms and Caleshu strive to show us how this circumscribed intellectual space is and is not Palace’s life, how through her talent, ambition and active choice she has indeed become studio mates, enemies , even bedfellows with the MFA milieu and its greater extension of the art world. But above all, this did not result in a smooth acculturation. On the contrary, the feeling that this arrangement produced in her is an intermittent attraction/repulsion. Palace’s three summers in this pastoral art commune bred intense entanglement and alienation from her peers and, to some extent, herself.
“OWell, I didn’t pitch to someone like, ‘I want to do a movie about depression,’ but it was always kind of in my head,” Syms explained. Nestled amid recitations of the writings of Fred Moten, the American poet and theorist whose collection of essays The sub-commons became a touchstone of graduate school in the late 2010s (the time period in which the film is set) – and on dipping summer afternoons, the film’s overriding mood is one of despair. As Palace, Diamond Stingily plays this note with a fine touch, using his sulky face and deadpan dryness to alternately hilarious and heartbreaking effect. For her, being sad is not collapsing on the fainting Victorian sofa; it’s colorful, erratic, aimless and impulsive. One moment she’s neutrally thinking about her mother’s chronic illness, the next she’s at her friend’s studio licking psychedelic drugs off the back of her hand. In one scene, she is demure in front of her crush, Ezra; “Fuck me or you’re racist,” she commands him in another. “Depression is different for everyone, I guess, but to me some things about it are really funny,” Syms said. “I cried that I couldn’t substitute fruit in a smoothie order before, you know what I mean? It’s fucking ridiculous, but it still happens to you.
The formation of this complex chord – of the ecstatic, the tragic and the often comical space where the two meet – has become a hallmark of Syms’ artistic practice, which encompasses photography, experimental video, performance in direct, a musical project called Aunt Sister and the small press Dominica Publishing. In a 2016 video titled “Laughing Gas,” from his semi-autobiographical sitcom series she is crazy, a fictionalized version of Syms goes to the dentist to have a wisdom tooth removed. When she wakes up, the dentist informs her that her insurance will not cover the procedure and that she will have to pay $1,700. Part delirious from the anesthesia and part shock, Syms gets up, walks out of the office without paying, boards a bus, and heads home laughing hysterically.
Like some of Whit Stillman’s parlor comedies or Noah Baumbach’s wistful post-graduation drama Kicking and screamingwhom Syms cited as a point of contact for his film, The Desperate African can sometimes feel like speaking in their own vernacular, rooted in the cloistered experience of a rarefied class. However, instead of direct parody, Syms took a more refracted approach: “I’m not into naturalism, actually. My director’s binder that I took everywhere said “FUCK REALISM” on it because I was more interested in [communicating] the way something feels or the affect than to be what something actually looks like. The feeling that Syms and Caleshu most earnestly tried to capture through their stripped-down, offbeat dialogue was the particular strangeness of the relationships developed in a small art school setting. “There’s a cognitive dissonance to being there,” Caleshu explained. Palace has “been with [her classmates] for three summers doing work and doing this intense thing that on the outside seems kind of pointless…. There is an inherent awkwardness in these interactions. If the content, the stakes and even the subjects of Palace’s exchanges with others sometimes seem unclear, it is because, to a certain extent, they are.
For Caleshu, writing the characters in this slightly skewed way allowed the film “to kind of enter a portal.” We fall headfirst into this portal in the film’s second act, where after spending all day proclaiming that she had no interest in attending the graduation party, she apparently was to be a DJ, Palace s collapses and shows up. To amplify her experience, or perhaps just to endure it, she ingests a small army of drugs. As she floats from room to cavernous room in the impossibly empty party, what previously seemed like tasteless exchanges with her classmates take on a bizarre new color. A friend casually offers to introduce her to his New York gallery owner as she slowly dissociates on her couch. A sycophant teacher asks her if she’s “ever heard of Lil Uzi Vert” as she staggers onto the dance floor. At the height of her journey, the people she meets literally take on a chromatic glow, a sort of K-hole aura portrait. The party has turned into an art school of horrors, with a new terror waiting around every corner. Palace, the film seems to say, must meet this challenge before they can be freed. As you might expect, she didn’t come out unscathed.
“A lot of movies, if they’re going to air on the last day of something, they might end at graduation,” Syms said of the film’s narrative conceit. “But I wanted to start there, because when you’re in those times in life, they usually feel kind of anticlimactic…. It empties really fast. The Desperate African could be considered a long emptying, a gradual rise to the surface and a draining of long-gestating toxins. The film’s emotional climax – a controversial, erotic and ultimately unsatisfying exchange between Palace and Ezra the morning after his bender – feels less like the consummation of pent-up desire than a cathartic release of anger, bitterness and longing. . It’s not the triumphant, transformative moment you might be hoping for; it’s more of a purge. Later that morning, as Palace finally boards the plane for Chicago, she throws up for good measure.