Daniel Barrow, Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry
Posted by: Dusty Hoesly
Daniel Barrow’s Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry is my favorite piece of this year’s festival. Subdued yet revelatory, Barrow’s storytelling combines words, music, and art to exquisite effect. As Pablo de Ocampo, curator for Cinema Project says, this work ranks among the best in moving images art. Barrow manipulates over 300 drawn and colored transparencies as he tells one of the strangest and saddest stories I’ve ever heard. The recorded soundtrack, by Amy Linton (of the band The Aislers Set), highlights the moods and acts like a film score.
In the darkened theatre, Barrow, who resembles Crispin Glover, sits in the center next to an overhead projector. Ocampo turns pages as Barrow reads his story into a microphone, all while Barrow maneuvers the transparencies (which are based on hundreds of his own drawings). Layering transparencies fluidly, he creates moving images of a boy carrying a tree down a street, an eye dropper aiding an eye, a man collecting garbage. The story follows a lonely garbage collector who dabbles in art by using windows to trace people in their homes, then including these drawings plus the information he finds in their trash to create a phone book he makes of people on his garbage route (which he calls “an art project for everyone”). Unfortunately, a strange character known as The Bag Lady (who earlier went to school with the protagonist and was ridiculed for being poor and wearing garbage bags as clothes) stalks the people in the phone book and kills them. The garbage man’s attempt at immortalizing the people on his route is the very act that ensures their untimely deaths.
Helen Keller is the starting point for this story. The beginning frames discuss her life, her inspirational quotes, and the movies based on her life, all of which act as inspiration for the arc of the story and as the basis for the protagonist’s own debilitating eye disease (for which he is called Helen Keller by classmates). In a sequence called The Sculpture Garden, Barrow talks about the protagonist and Keller wanting to be loved, but that they won’t be loved romantically due to their disabilities. They can “only know love through art.” This sets up one of the themes of the piece: what is the power of art to express our feelings about ourselves and others? Or, as Barrow says later, how do we balance what’s moving versus what’s serious and critical? This is a task Barrow does exceedingly well.
The story is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. Early in the story, which is divided into chapters, Barrow narrates, “I can’t cry… I would love 5 lbs. if I could cry.” As an employed garbage man, “I don’t answer to a supervisor, so my job is as progressive as unemployment.” There is an ad for a beverage called “Fucked Up Lite.” One woman reads a book titled “Are We Dating or Just Hanging Out?” He defines an artist as a “fragile effete/fey person who takes most things too seriously.” The songs “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Love Will Keep Us Together” are juxtaposed. One resident tapes up a sign that says “Fuck Off Trash Spy.” He posits that “Marilyn Manson is scarier than a real Satanist.” After the protagonist dies, he says, “Don’t feel sorry for me because it’ll all happen to you too.” The despairing and the hopeful linger side-by-side.
Barrow is critical of art schools and the people they attract: people in art colleges already consider themselves artists so they think they don’t need to draw or paint; they are artists simply by calling themselves so. They learn to give false compliments while secretly hating most everyone else’s work. Artists, he claims, often express themselves unnecessarily. The story’s theme of making art out of trash is a critique of this fetish in the art world: why are we making art from trash and is it any good? Barrow claims that “accepted art is violent,” then showing that murdering The Bag Lady will become the celebrity artist while the back alley garbage man is the artist laboring in obscurity until he dies (at the hands of The Bag Lady). The masks the killer wears are shown in art galleries.
Parts of the film’s concluding thoughts are perhaps too pat, despite Barrow claiming that he has an aversion to really happy endings. He says “we are all connected” and adds that “we are all in danger” and “we are all in pain”; a tree grows from the protagonist’s grave (new life from old). We see images of a child with a star atop a Christmas tree at the end (like the last shot of It’s a Wonderful Life). Perhaps more unsettling and interesting, he says that dying gives us “spiritual insights without language to express our experience” and that “we won’t know [the answers] until we die.” This sounds more like Cormac McCarthy than Frank Capra.
After the film, Barrow talked about his process. First, he draws black and white images of whatever comes into his head (often “visual gags”), then he stacks ideas together into layers and scenes in the story. Second, he takes these now-organized pieces and makes a movie of him telling the story so that the composer can write the score (a sort of visual storyboard for pacing the music). Third, he redraws and colors the images, then makes transparencies of them. Barrow is mainly inspired by comics and films, Wanda Gág, and later by Miranda July (who he met while touring his work).
Despite Barrow’s contention that accepted art is violent, this sweetly tragic story modulates the violence through his gentle voice and hopeful theme. He guides us through his story (and through his take on the art world) like Virgil guides Dante through the depths of hell, and we are transformed. His tale moves beyond the easy quirks and reproducible story arc of an Ira Glass-produced radio narrative. Expertly manipulating transparencies and narration, all in time to the soundtrack, requires rehearsal and skill, and yet Barrow makes it all seem so effortless. Amidst the story’s melancholy, it is pure joy to witness Barrow as an artist.