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Adolescent eros

Experimental Speedy Boys as likely to intoxicate as it is to repel

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Athens filmmaker James Herbert, who for the past four decades has made his reputation with a series of experimental films that deal almost exclusively with youthful eroticism, will have his work featured in a retrospective at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center Nov. 4-Dec. 30. In conjunction with that exhibition, IMAGE Film and Video Center will show one of Herbert's few feature-length films, 1999's Speedy Boys.

As much as Herbert's decidedly roaming, unstructured narratives are about anything, this typically airy, erotic reverie focuses on two American teenagers, Carter and Andy, who spend an inordinate amount of time nude while lolling away the summer painting and making love in Italy.

Known for his many video collaborations with R.E.M., Herbert's more often noncommercial art films like Speedy Boys suggest a combination of Jock Sturges, Larry Clark, avant-garde work by Stan Brakhage (Herbert's mentor at the University of Colorado) and Maya Deren and a sprinkling of Calvin Klein's adolescent rhapsodies. Herbert taps into both the vanity and the vulnerability of youth in his films, exploiting its self-important, narcissistic streak, while also honoring its earnest, wistful side. Herbert seems to align his own vision as truth-sayer with the mission of his two young Americans, Carter and Andy, of whom an Italian girl remarks, "the matter for them is not to be without clothes, but to be really nude." Her statement comes as close as anything in this quicksilver film to summing up Herbert's belief in raw, unfettered confession via his gloriously naked bodies.

A painter and photographer in addition to a filmmaker, Herbert's approach to the human body might best be called sculptural. This very art-world conception of the nude as a plastic, malleable entity is established from the very start in Speedy Boys in a strange, balletic "dance" set to a mesmeric, chanting song, in which the two male leads pose and move around and lie like fatigued sybarites on a tile floor within an elegantly decorated room, draping their bodies around each other, lifting one another, lost in a sensual reverie. As in many of Herbert's films, which center on romanticized, choreographed tableaux of young, naked lovers entwined in each other's embrace, the sequence suggests a filmmaker trying to activate the frozen, sexualized scenarios of classical oil painting into equally charged, lyrical live-action tableaux vivants.

And like much of Herbert's canon, such sequences will either intoxicate or repel. Depending upon one's aesthetic boiling point, Herbert's works can register as intensely embarrassing and pretentious endurance tests -- a continuation of the old saw about the horny artist and his ripe, young muse(s) -- or strike one as profoundly poetic, dreamy works that transpose the reveries of the erotic imagination onto film. It's possible that Herbert's perception as a libidinal shaman or a charlatan will also depend upon one's own memories of the teenage years, and whether they are symbolic of a charmed epoch of truth-seeking and spiritual quests, or more associated with deluded innocence and high drama.

Though Herbert works most often on an impressionistic, sensory level, allowing the audience an immersion in the gilded sensuality of Carter and Andy and their girlfriends, he occasionally inserts fragments of storytelling symbolism, as when Andy narrates directly to the camera his make-out session with an Italian girl, intercut with images of their innocent coupling. Herbert then cuts to an image of a plastic soda bottle on the roadside, tilted vulnerably on its side and filled with red liquid -- a summation of the girl's as yet unspilled virginity.

One of the best supporting documents for the erotic charms of Herbert's Speedy Boys is the very first scene in which athletic, strawberry blond Andy lays on his bed and appears to have a carnal flashback to a certain girl in Italy. Spilling the contents of her purse onto his bed and fingering the bag as if it were a proxy for the girl herself, Andy draws a crimson line of her lipstick down his torso, as if mimicking a trail of kisses. The scene encapsulates some of the qualities of flushed yearning, desires only partly achieved and the particularly painful, lovely angst of young lovers from Romeo and Juliet to Splendor in the Grass, who make each romance into a live-or-die, edge-of-the-Earth operatic tragedy.

Speedy Boys consists almost entirely of such voiceless vignettes; the two American boys and their girlfriends on a picnic in the Italian countryside, riding their dirt bikes -- anachronistic suburban devices -- through the winding, ancient streets of an Italian village, with occasional spoken asides by the boys. These impressionistic pieces are woven into a lush, woozy tapestry, which gallivants from rapture to plain lust, from poetry to soft-core, from daffy, awkward experimentalism to moments of sublimity and back again in the artist's wholly original view of film as the ultimate erogenous zone.

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