Emotional Mereology: The Role of Composite Character in the Work of Aleesa Cohene

“Emotional Mereology: The Role of Composite Character in the Work of Aleesa Cohene.” In Haven’t We Been Here Before (Winnipeg: PLATFORM centre for photographic + digital arts, 2011), 27-30.

The composite character is one made up of several different actors. Cohene has described this cinematic device as “single individuals made from many different people’s actions, gestures, dialogue, and so on.”1 For example, consider Todd Solondz’ Palindromes (2004) where the 13-year-old main character, Aviva, is played by ten different actors all of different ages and races. Another more mainstream reference might be Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) in which six different actors portray different facets of Bob Dylan’s personality or in Luis Buñuel’s arthouse classic Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) where Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina both play the same character.

In Cohene’s work, the composite character is a single, coherent character created from hundreds of different characters recycled from Hollywood genre films of the late 70s and early 80s. Cohene seamlessly edits the characters together through emotional editing — editing which focuses on emotional continuity, rather than Hollywood’s ‘big c’ continuity which typically focuses on regulating scenic conformity. Cohene explains:

As long as the emotion is there and is consistent, and is evolving as we understand emotion to evolve, it has an architecture that we can all relate to. As long as I’m feeling it — and am in it — a single person can be made up of thousands. This prevails over continuity. Continuity ‘mistakes’ where the character has glasses on then not happen all the time in mainstream films, but if the emotion prevails we don’t notice. It’s the role of emotion in the suspension of disbelief that I push in my work.2

The emotional content of a scene is all that is left once a character has been removed from their original context allowing Cohene to heighten the emotional potentiality of her found footage. In other words, the audience is “moved simultaneously by the ‘original’ content and the ‘new’ content.”2 In addition, by selectively condensing the most intense moments from different films, Cohene creates hyper-emotional narratives.

Through the use of the composite character Cohene subverts the representational stereotypes found in mainstream cinema creating her own emotionally and politically charged montages For instance, the mainstream cinematic representation of women in genre films is inherently simplistic. Women’s roles are often one-dimensional and follow one of three archetypes: the femme fatale, the psychotic monster or the passive victim. Despite this fact, many exceptional actors played these roles (for instance, Meryl Streep) and Cohene is able to exploit these performances to tell her own stories.

Composite characters are — by their very nature — abstract. Abstraction is commonly used in experimental cinema to personalize the image by forcing the viewer to decode the abstraction using their own experiences. This creates connections between the filmmaker’s images and the viewer’s personal memories. In this way, composite characters can be used to express universal themes. In other words, the viewer’s emotional response is stimulated through an identification with a universal character, one that is abstract enough to transcend culture, gender and class. Furthermore, Cohene chooses universal themes that everyone can relate to. For instance, who hasn’t felt feelings of devastation due to a failing relationship, loneliness/isolation, and the helplessness amidst an intense family conflict?

Composite characters allow Cohene to release discrete characters from their original context enabling them to perform situations and actions that are forbidden in Hollywood movies. For instance, Cohene creates a masturbation scene “using women’s gestures and expressions from a rape scene, an abortion scene, despondent sex and sleeping.”2 Moreover, when was the last time you saw a failing romantic relationship between two women depicted in a Hollywood movie?

Cohene first started to experiment with the concept of building characters from multiple sources in her early works, however, the composite character wasn’t explicitly used until her three-channel video installation Something Better (2008). In Something Better, the technique was used to examine the deterioration of communication between three archetypes — father, mother and child. In Cohene’s latest two-channel video installation Like, Like (2009) composite characters are used to tell a story of two women caught in a relationship breakdown.

In both of the installations, each character is placed on their own monitor. By separating the monitors, Cohene creates a cinema of isolation, that is, the characters are physically barred from interaction due to the actual distance between the screens. On the other hand, the installation elements — the non-diegetic music, the patterns painted on the wall surrounding the monitors, and the custom made smell (made by the artist herself) — are used to beautifully hold the work together.

Like, Like indeed!

  1. Brett Kashmere, “At first cozy, became transgressive: An Interview with Aleesa Cohene,” Incite: Journal of Experimental Media (2010). []
  2. Jane Rowley, “Aleesa Cohene in Conversation with Jane Rowley” AF ART 26 (2009): 35. [] [] []