There’s a general consensus in art that we only care about reality. We don’t want fiction or fantasy but rather stories based on real life, characters based on real people and plots that reflect the ordinary twists and turns of our daily lives. Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell have taken this notion to the next level by creating a film out of their relationship in real time. Blending narrative and documentary (because what is genre anyway?), they allow the camera unprecedented access to their most intimate moments and the results are seemingly brave. Decker and Throwell appear naked in a bathroom, crying as Decker tries to wash his sperm out her body. Decker appears naked on a bedroom floor, having sex with Zefrey (who is naked and lying unflatteringly on Decker’s abdomen). Decker appears naked in a Manhattan storefront, playing Texas Hold ‘Em in a work of performance art with Zefrey, also naked.
There’s a lot of nudity in Flames because Decker and Throwell’s artistic practices depend on an in-your-face style of personal exposure. Decker’s previous films, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, were widely praised for their immediacy, eroticism and ecstatic spirit, but she is perhaps better known as the woman from a Marina Abramović documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, who took off her clothes at MoMA and was promptly kicked out by guards. Throwell has made a name for himself with equally galvanizing projects: re-enacting real-life crimes, stripping on Wall Street and making art out of human remains.
Befitting their incendiary brands, Decker and Throwell give viewers a degree of access they might not even want. When the couple plays with sock puppets beneath post-coital sheets, the game isn’t cute. It has a look-at-us quality, making them like the couple on the crowded subway train that won’t stop making out. When Throwell blindfolds Decker and tells her to throw a dart at a map, he smiles with self-congratulatory glee. He promises to take her wherever it lands, and one can’t help but wonder if this is all a show. At times, Zefrey and Josephine seem more in love with their own clever filmmaking than they are with each other.
Rather than breaking boundaries with honest filmmaking, the supposed rawness of Flames comes off as disingenuous. There is a persistent sense that both Decker and Throwell know, at every moment, that they are being filmed. Of course, film is always an illusion and maybe they’re just pointing that out. By shedding illusion and embracing awkward reality, however, Flames doesn’t inspire so much as bore. By the end, it’s easy to see why characters and plot matter. The traditions of storytelling exist for a reason. They work.
Without degrading or devaluing the body, it should also be pointed out that a naked body has limits. By exposing it in an attempt to provoke, an artist risks doing the opposite. Instead of proving how radical and carnal we are, a naked body often shows just how plain we really are. Beneath our clothes, we’re all the same. The sight of other people’s sex is even worse. There is nothing remarkable about two naked bodies slamming together on rumpled sheets. Nothing fails to capture passion like showing it outright.
Love is the soul of humanity, so it’s only natural that radical filmmakers like Decker and Throwell would want to make a film about their passion. But they needed a climax, and a sudden breakup would do just the trick. Was their love doomed from the start because of the camera’s need for an ending? In the final act, Decker and Throwell are smart enough to ask themselves this and more. After all, their artistic practices depend on such self-questioning. Except rather than making the world more filled with wonder, their interrogation of motivations and meanings narrows our focus onto them and only them. The world gets smaller. Their performance of love leads nowhere.
How you feel about Flames could depend on how you feel about performance art. It’s a self-aware discipline carried out by people who seem to enjoy being seen. A good piece of performance art invites identification and raises significant questions like ‘Who do we think we are?’ and ‘Why do we do that?’ An insincere piece can, like Flames, frustrate or even discomfort.
If anything makes the film worth watching, it is Josephine Decker and her ceaseless need to expose herself even if it causes her pain. Whether disrobing in public, dancing with a plant on her head or sobbing in the middle of Times Square, she makes her vulnerability stridently clear. All the great artists are divisive. Decker is one of them.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.