Emma's Dilemma: Henry Hills's film featuring Emma Bee Bernstein, with an appreciation by Kevin Killian

Microscope version

PennSound presents a full-length (83 minute) version of Henry Hills's film Emma's Dilemma (1997-2012), which had its premiere at the Microscope Gallery (Brooklyn). Kevin Killian has written an appreciation for this release. 

Trouble viewing?: try it on PennSound
Additional parts of the film (including Richard Foreman and Ken Jacobs sections): here.

Kevin Killian on Emma's Dilemma:

The camera circles a coffee table on which the Times lies open to an ad for the 1997 Oscar-winning As Good As It Gets, a film in which harried New Yorkers attempt to deal with love, life, sexual identity, and the pressures of raising difficult kids in NYC.  Filmmaker Henry Hills put his focus otherwise on young Emma Bee Bernstein, twelve when she started conducting interviews and conversations with the adult artists and writers in her family’s circle.  Her bratty younger brother appears now and again to try to steal the show, but Hills treats his eponymous vedette the way Louis Malle treated ten-year-old Catherine Demongeot in his 1960 film of Queneau’s Zazie dans le Metro—like a new wave starlet, passionate, phony, gawky, alluringly beautiful, playful, and pissed in turns.

Emma’s Dilemma benefits from a certain Y2K vibe; its adults seem honestly puzzled about what the cards will deal them in this end-of-times era—no wonder you’d feel anxious and depressed, if As Good As It Gets was the year’s top movie.  Poet Susan Howe appears, enunciating her vowels as though they were rubies and emeralds, to speculate how writing will mutate in the next decade with the spread of computers.  She speaks of two things bound to change, privacy and control; Emma’s Dilemma expands Howe’s speculations both vertically and horizontally, confronting its heroine with a barrage of identity markers and yet seeming to fence her in visually—pushing her into a subway car, into a tiny chair, into a doorframe, so she’s part analysand too—Kenneth Goldsmith asks Emma how much she thinks about sex, and she says she doesn’t think about it all that very much.  (Like the idol they share, Andy Warhol, another artist who understood privacy and control.) 

 There are so many cameos in Emma’s Dilemma that occasionally the focus slides away from Emma. That’s a good thing, lets her get a breather, just as the appearances of Karina, Godard, and Michel Legrand, in Agnes Varda’s 1962 Cléo de 5 à 7 allows Corinne Marchand to ebb as well as flow. Both films float on the silver pillow helium of their visual and verbal wit, but Hills ratchets his up with a great high style: the stuttering camera tricks or repetitions, feedback, the reduction of Emma’s thoughts to a few words, sometimes just a syllable or a moue.  Watching this you realize how much children are patronized, and how often and in what complicated ways.  Artist Roberto Juarez shows off a gaggle of new paintings of infants, explaining he has a new subject because, “I didn’t want to be just the flower boy.”  You can see Emma in the movie, not wanting to be just the talking head her role assigns her, and happily her director allows her the freedom of the screen where she can relaz and be totally present, as Edie Sedgwick was so lusciously present in Ciao Manhattan, or, earlier, in Inner and Outer Space.  Perhaps the warmest and most intimate of Hills’ films, Emma’s Dilemma is one of those documents that just spins like a top.  You hate to see it come to a close. 

Antonia Pocock on Emma's Dilemma:

“In America…in the late 1990s,” poet Charles Bernstein observes in the film, “the perspective of the culture is from the point of view of the 12 year old girl…This is Emma’s situation, Emma’s dilemma.” Emma, as Bernstein’s daughter, was thrust into New York’s avant-garde poetry, art, theatre, and film circuit, though she preferred to identify with Nirvana and Parker Posey. In 1997, when Emma was 12, she was enlisted by experimental filmmaker Henry Hills to conduct interviews of his colleagues, including her mother and father. Over the next five years, Hills recorded Emma’s encounters with Jackson Mac Low, Ken Jacobs, Roberto Juarez, Susan Howe, Keith Sanborn, Cheryl Donegan, Julie Patton, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Ann Brown, and Sally Silvers. Simultaneously a view of Hills’ circle through Emma’s rapidly changing teenage eyes, and a view of Emma through Hills’ eyes, this two-way portrait abounds with conflicting perspectives.

 The collision of generations is matched by abrupt shifts between documentary and structuralist modes of filmmaking. Passages of hand-held footage, which portray Emma and her interviewees with seeming directness and immediacy, are interrupted by passages where editing processes are foregrounded. The image periodically breaks down into a mosaic of digital pixels. Words and gestures are fragmented and looped, creating stuttering sonic and visual rhythms that suggest a momentary failure in communication.

 We meet Emma in her bedroom, pasted wall-to-ceiling with images of indie starlets and musicians torn from magazines. She is inspired by MTV and Andy Warhol, which she inquires about in the interviews, prompting responses concerning the dangers of advertising, fame, and money. Artist Kenny Goldsmith asks, “Do you think art has any real importance compared to Ralph Lauren?” Emma candidly replies, “I don’t like Ralph Lauren.” Balancing her interest in poetry with her idolization of Courtney Love and Chloe Sevigny, Emma rejects sharp distinctions between mass-entertainment and critical art practice, seeming to want them to exist side by side, as on her bedroom walls.

Henry Hills on Emma's Dilemma (Microscope version): 

I knew Emma her entire life. I was inspired to work with her on this project upon hearing her comments after attending a screening of my films when she was 9. The sophistication of her observations was uncanny for such a child. This was before mini- DV, though, and I was uncomfortable working in 8mm video and was unable to raise funds to shoot with her in 16mm. She had just turned 12 in 1997 when we began shooting. The project was to consist of her interviewing a range of artists about their work. Poet Jackson Mac Low was the first subject, followed after a few months by interviews with Ken Jacobs and Richard Foreman which became separate films, NERVOUS KEN (2003) and KING RICHARD (2004) [available at PennSound]. We continued working together on a more or less regular basis until she was 16 and then did a final shoot the next year. As we progressed I felt the main center of focus subtly shifting from my artist subjects to my teen protagonist. I had all along intended to take an experimental (rather than documentary) approach to the interview material, to fragment and reassemble it in various ways, frequently riffing on the subjects' own work, exploring qualities of this new medium of digital video. In this final version these explorations strangely function as interstitial material.

When an exhibit of Emma's Polaroids was announced at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, my longtime dear friend, poet Charles Bernstein, Emma's father, asked me to put together some unseen outtakes out of the 30 or so hours I had shot with Emma. I took this opportunity to finally finish this project which had lain dormant for so many years. I had been somewhat fearful of approaching the material after Emma's death in 2008. There is a bizarre aspect to editing, intensely focussing on and analyzing minute moments of time, revealing gestures and vocabularies and manners of speaking and moving, which to the editor seems like spending time with those recorded (even if I never met them). It was fantastic to hang out with Emma one last time, and only when I finished, really in the sound mix, did I feel the immense tragedy of this lost life. I sent a preview copy to Charles and he wrote me yesterday: "You really pulled the whole work together in the new version. It takes on a narrative force, as a quest, with the time stopping or opening up in those stuttering moments, which operate as networks of stoppages in Duchamp's sense. It's like having Emma back, in flickering moments; and then not."

The material is basically assembled in chronological order. This is primarily a film about Emma and her changes from age 12 to 17, before she made any of the work in the Microscope shows, but it includes much of the archaeology of its making.

Emma’s Dilemma stars Emma Bee Bernstein, with Jackson Mac Low, Eduardo Allegria & dancers, Ken & Flo Jacobs, Roberto Juarez, Kenny Goldsmith, Susan Howe, Cheryl Donegan, Felix Bernstein, Keith Sanborn, Julie Patton, Susan Bee, Carolee Schneemann, Lee Ann Brown, and Charles Bernstein.

Henry Hills’ Emma’s Dilemma reinvents the portrait for the age of digital reproduction. In a set of tour-de-force probes into the images and essences of such downtown luminaries as Richard Foreman, Ken Jacobs, and Carolee Schneemann, Hills’ cinematic inventions literally turn the screen upside down and inside out. In this epic journey into the picaresque, we follow Emma Bee Bernstein, our intrepid protagonist, from her pre-teen innocence to her late teen-attitude, as she learns about the downtown art scene firsthand. In the process, Hills reimagines the art of video in a style that achieves the density, complexity, and visual richness of his greatest films.