ELLIS: a film by JR
Coming soon to wide release.
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, JAN. 2016
The most unique and dramatic thing about street-art star JR’s work is his relationship to architecture. In his globe-spanning photography-based UNFRAMED campaign of art installations, JR deploys black and white portraits, often at mural size, that play with placement, scale, fungible contexts of public, private, and historical space, and facets of environmental experience and shared memory. So it was beyond perfect when, in 2014 JR was invited to create a sprawling permanent public art installation throughout the Ellis Island Hospital complex; once the entry point for millions of immigrants, abandoned since 1954.
Drawing from both original documentation and found images as well as contemporary portraits, JR responded to the historical and emotional weight of the narrative palimpsest blanketing the site with a vast, patient, and well-considered array of installations in the rooms, corridors, and great halls of the old hospital. Ranging from the singular and intimate to the witty and evocative, the haunting and surreal, the illusionistic and allegorical, JR uses not only walls of concrete, brick and mortar, but also the panes of broken windows, overturned furniture, the backs of doors that close behind the walker, carpeting floors and hallways, lurking in dusty shadows at the far end of rooms lit by shafts of dramatic light, gazing outward toward the Manhattan skyline -- their new lives, so close now, yet still so far away.
Now a new film, ELLIS, is directed by JR and based on this installation -- but is not a documentary nor concerned with its making. Instead, it is a short cinematic masterpiece of original scripted dialog, breathtaking cinematography, and incandescent music starring Robert De Niro as a first-person narrator whose archetypal immigrant’s story unfolds as he meanders through the installations -- literally showing us what would happen if the walls could talk. The way he holds his coat at his chest, perhaps for comfort in the face of powerful old thoughts as well as against the cold of the snow that falls the whole time, gives the whole proceeding a hushed, almost spiritual air. The photographs emerge from the surfaces through the dust-heavy air and through the parting mists of time, as though they grew directly from the walls themselves.
De Niro is halfway between a ghost and an Our Town-style stage manager, speaking in the first person, yet ultimately blending into a singular voice telling the “American” melting pot of memories. Through his sombre engagement with the architectural environment, as he moves through spaces, pausing to contemplate or seeming not to see, the camera captures all the myriad ways we are meant to experience JR’s art when it is encountered in the world. At one point, De Niro puts up at one face, hinting that perhaps “he” did them all -- only to reveal installations on the floors of rooms and corridors too vast to contemplate as a single person’s labor.
As gorgeous crane shots pushing out through windows and doorways, across snowbound courtyards, lacing through the industrial, half-ruined architecture, the narrator intones, “It wasn’t always empty...” And elsewhere, he remembers the tumult of “people of every color, shape and size…” and of course, one of JR’s other unique attributes is his use of portraits of a diverse pool of individuals, eclectic in race, gender, and age, as the subjects for his work. Using Ellis Island’s full potential as a framework for viewing modern society -- so richly populated by both descendants of these immigrants and new generations who continue to aspire to America -- JR engineers a slow build of image density throughout, swelling along with the music, to a poignant climax as De Niro remarks, “I am the ghost of all those who will never get there,” and it’s clear he means there as both a place and as an idea. WM
ELLIS stars Robert De Niro, was written by Academy Award winner Eric Roth and
directed by JR with original music by Woodkid and cinematography by Andre Chemetoff.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
view all articles from this author