Kranky Klaus

April 1, 2008

The 2008 Whitney Biennial is on now; I may make this one, but for now here is a brief review of a Cameron Jamie video work from the 2006 installment.

Punk-artist-anthropologist Cameron Jamie has made three documentaries on violence; I’ve read about them all and seen just this one. Considering most video art is projected haphazardly, it was nice to watch it in a dark room with plush seats. The only other viewer, a society granny probably looking to rest, joined me for the day’s first show.

Unfortunately, she didn’t stay until the end. A shame: she could have bought us coffee while we discussed the film. Or I could have called the paramedics to revive her after a collapse caused by the film’s unbearable violence. In “Kranky Klaus,” Santa bribes his way in with gifts and his burly young charges in Krampus costumes (Santa’s helpers in Austrian folklore) beat the crap out of innocent people.

At first, I mistook it for a performance, not a doc. Any artist would be proud to have designed the costumes. They seemed like perversions of Santa’s reindeer, with giant sleigh bells on their belts. The first scene shows a gathering crowd as the Krampuses wait around a convenience store for Santa to emerge. The jump up and down as the store manager keeps them outside. Everyone in the crowd seems to understand the conflict, though alien to my eyes.

From there the holiday gang spreads violent cheer in public and private. Whenever the Krampuses get in, Santa offers some gifts, and then his hairy friends pulverize the naughty. At first, it’s funny, but the violence increases with each visit. Halfway through, the Krampuses doff their masks and refuel with hard liquor. By the film’s end, they don’t mind the masks for an extended manhandling of screaming girls.

I was astonished, in part that the Centre Pompidou would fund a project to beat up kids. I was also wrong: Jamie came up with nothing but the viewing. The costumes and violence come out of an Austrian tradition, replayed every December. He is just an interested observer, documenting the ritual.

His art shows in the editing. He structures the film to decrease our distance from the action bit by bit. As our understanding increases, so does our complicity. The initial episodes are cut quickly, so they seem like harmless, even hilarious roughhousing. But as the victims grow younger and less aware of what’s happening, Jamie cuts each sequence longer. Eventually hard just to watch, it is hard to believe no one truly gets hurt. Perhaps the approving society around them has just decided no one gets hurt. I suppose if you think otherwise, then you’re a bad kid who’s just not playing along. The doc is propelled by music from the Melvins, surely an appropriate choice.


Update: Steve Kaplan at The.Thing.Net has a fine overview of the Krampus with lots of art.

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