Vigoda, Rampling Revisit Discarded Sarafian, Coppola Characters in New Film

"Cutaways" -- the 21-minute movie by artist Agnieszka Kurant -- explores characters edited out of Richard C. Sarafian's "Vanishing Point" and Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation."

In 1971, Charlotte Rampling stuck out her thumb as a nameless hitchhiker in Richard C. Sarafian’s car-chase thriller Vanishing Point and ended up pulling a disappearing act -- not into the dusty horizon of a desert highway, but rather into the wilds of the cutting room floor.

Now, more than four decades later, Rampling’s drifter finally catches her ride in Polish-born, New York-based artist Agnieszka Kurant’s Cutaways, 2013. The 21-minute film gives new life to three distinct characters who were cut from their original films during final edits: Rampling’s hitchhiker, plus characters edited out of Pulp Fiction and The Conversation, played by Dick Miller and Abe Vigoda, respectively. For Cutaways, Kurant gathered the three actors together to shoot a new scenario in which the three characters interact.

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Kurant’s obsession with “exformation” -- social scientist Tor Norretranders’ coinage for “explicitly discarded information” -- shapes her creative practice as an artist. Her past exhibitions have featured everything from maps showing famous, but fictional islands (including Nabokov’s beloved Ultima Thule) to a radio program of silent pauses from great speeches. As Kurant explains, phenomenon like a fantasy destination or dramatic pause may not exist (or at least may not be detectable) but they wield a symbolic value all the same

Kurant calls this symbolic value “phantom capital,” and she connects this to an economy of “invisible labor.” Chief among the “invisible” professions is film editing, an art which Kurant likens to curating. The artist reveres as her “ultimate hero” editor and sound designer Walter Murch, an Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now and The English Patient. Murch has also published influential texts on editing, including the seminal In the Blink of an Eye (2001). “I think all curators should read Walter’s books,” Kurant urges. “He talks about organizing material as an explicitly creative process, an autonymous art form.”

For Cutaways, Kurant took a chance and reached out to Murch, only to find that he was working on a production in New York. "Not only was he in New York, he was working in a building on the same block as my apartment! We started to meet for coffee, and I would bounce these ideas off him, like adapting one of the scores he uses for editing into an exhibition. Then one time I said to him, I’m going to tell you the craziest idea I’ve had. I’ve always dreamt of making a film using three or four discarded characters, as a kind of portrait of this invisible universe where characters go when they’re cut from their films. Walter said  ‘What are you waiting for?’”

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Murch was not only supportive, he provided the first character, a Vigoda role he himself had cut from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). “McNaught” – conceived as a best friend to Gene Hackman’s “Harry Caul” – was sacrificed to emphasize the protagonist’s isolation. “I naturally thought of Abe," Murch confirms. A long-time collaborator of Murch’s, Coppola gladly gave his blessing for Kurant to use the character, spurring the artist to start making similar inquiries, often through Murch’s introduction.

Once Kurant had collected over two hundred characters, she selected the three who would meet for her film. “I wanted the scenario to be mundane, just a snippet of everyday life from this alternative universe of these cut characters.” For the script, she approached two distinguished writers, but they both argued for the characters to openly reflect on the experience of being edited out of their own stories, while Kurant wanted this to go unspoken. “It was very important for me that the characters were allowed to just exist as they were, as characters with their own histories outside of what eventually does or doesn't go into a film."

Eventually Kurant would write the film herself, in collaboration with Manuel Cirauqui and fellow artist John Menick. As the original footage had either been denied to the artist or discarded ("It's actually quite expensive to store negatives,” reminds Kurant), the artist shot a new eight-minute scenario that finds Rampling’s character at last in luck when Vigoda, aka “McNaught,” pulls over to the side of the roadwith car trouble. Together the two characters venture to the autoparts yard of “Monster Joe,” Miller’s would-be role in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Their meeting is followed by an extended credit sequence, which supplements the names of the three leads with an entire roster of actors and actresses whose characters have been cut from films (As an additional touch, each name is stylized in the title fonts of the intended film for each role.) The final credits expand to include the character names and sources, inspiring fantasies of how Danny Glover may have helped Stella get her groove back; how plausible a trucker Helen Hunt would have made in One Night at McCool’s (2000); and how extensive Michelle Monaghan’s range must be to have, in the same year (2005), portrayed both “Miss USA” (in Syriana) and “Half-Breed Demon” (in Constantine).

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Cutaways premiered last November at New York's Sculpture Center and was screened as part of New York’s Performa 13biennial, later traveling to Stroom den Haag in the Netherlands. When asked whether she envisions future episodes, Kurant is hesitant. “I'm tempted to do a European version, like with Agnes Varda,” she smiles, “but what’s really interesting for me is to pursue what happens regarding the copyright laws on these characters. Not every studio would grant permission to use the characters -- the fictional characters, not even the original footage -- which I acknowledge in the text at the beginning of the film. So, now we see if any studios want to sue over characters they own but will never use. It’s incredibly interesting to consider the legal life of these cast-off characters.”

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