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Oedipus in Ashcroft

Stewart Oksenhorn
Mark Fox/Special to the DailyJavier Tellez uses elements of Japanese Noh theater in his filmic retelling of Oedipus Rex.
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For a decade, Javier Téllez has been making videos that use mental patients as the on-screen talent. So not infrequently, Téllez is asked if he sees his work as therapeutic in nature.The answer is yes, but not in the way those inquiring might expect. Téllez expects his actors, whom he considers true collaborators, to get something valuable out of the filmmaking process. But Téllez has his eye on another sector of the population in need of therapy.”It’s more therapeutic for the people who come to the museum than it is for the patients,” he said. “The wall of the mental hospital defines not only the ones inside, but the ones outside. There’s a lack of language we have on the outside, and there’s a lot to be learned from mental illness.”The latest effort to scale that wall is taking shape on Colorado’s Western Slope. For his project as the Aspen Art Museum’s first distinguished artist in residence, Téllez is filming “Oedipus Marshal” – an alternate telling of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” fashioned as a Western, with elements from the Japanese Noh style of theater. Téllez began spending time in Grand Junction last month, meeting and recruiting actors at the Oasis Club House, a facility for outpatients with mental illness. (Téllez, playing on the “club house” name, and his notion that mental patients aren’t so different from the non-institutionalized, refers to his collaborators as “members.”) Shooting of “Oedipus Marshal,” co-written by Téllez and Oasis Clubber Aaron Sheley, takes place over the next week, at Ashcroft.The film, expected to be 40 minutes, will be exhibited at the Aspen Art Museum Aug. 11-Oct. 1, with an opening reception Aug. 10. Currently, the upper gallery of the Art Museum, which has been turned into Téllez’s production studio, is open to the public, which is invited to visit and interact with Téllez.For Téllez, the barrier separating the mentally ill from the normal has been practically nonexistent. Téllez was raised in Valencia, Venezuela, the son of two psychiatrists. Téllez describes his father also as an intellectual, who had some 20,000 books and endless papers packed into the family’s house. “The only open place, where the kids could play, was my father’s consultation room, where he consulted with patients,” said the 36-year-old Téllez, over one cup of coffee and many Camel cigarettes, one morning outside Clark’s Market.That integration with the psychiatric patients left Téllez with the impression that the mentally ill were not so far removed from the fully functioning. Téllez, who collects psychiatry textbooks – especially those heavy on illustrations – says mental incapacity is as much a construct as it is a sickness. Views of the mentally ill shift with changing times and points of view.”Where do you actually place the definition – how do you construct the definition – of what is normal?” asked Téllez, who lives and maintains a studio in Queens, N.Y. “The normal and the pathological always change with the times, and are defined differently.

“Whatever happened to hysteria? It was a social construction of the time, that had an identity that had to do with references to the male and the feminine. When these ideas changed, the illness went away.”Rather than treating the mentally ill as a segment apart from the rest of society, Téllez says they should be brought closer. In particular, he believes the institutionalized should be introduced, as much as possible, into the production/consumption system, in order to give them a sense of belonging to mainstream society. On a more theoretical level, maintaining distance from the mentally is akin to cutting off part of ourselves.”It causes an alienation. By segragating people, you’re eliminating yourself,” he said. “It’s a question of language. I want to make this other language part of our language. In order to find meaning in the rational language, you need irrational language. You need nonsense.”I see my work as a translator.””Oedipus Marshal” binds together three elements that Téllez has strong interest in: psychiatry, Western films and Noh theater.While “Oedipus Rex” is considered one of the classics of Greek tragedy, it is Freud’s emphasis on one aspect of the story – that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother – that survives strongest in the public consciousness. Freud coined the “Oedipus complex,” in which a male develops an unnatural love for his mother, and antipathy for his father. Téllez’s script gives a different interpretation to the story.”In our point of view, Aaron and me, Oedipus hears voices,” said Téllez. “He’s basically a schizoproenic. Oedipus is the heart of psychoanalysis, in reading Freud. This piece presents a very different reading of the myth, that goes against the grain.”During Téllez’s childhood, Western were a staple of Venezulean television. Téllez had no context for them: “For me, the cowboys and the Samurai were the same,” he says. Still, the films of John Wayne and John Ford left their mark.”I think the Western is the American genre par excellence. It is the epic,” said Téllez, who moved into film school after a brief time in art school. “One thing I love is confrontation between landscape and the human; there’s always that tension, pressing. And all Westerns are about death. Westerns are all shootouts, guns, the struggle to survive. Oedipus is about free will and destiny. But it is always, also, about death.”Téllez, whose films are often set within the walls of a mental institution, has long thought about creating a Western. When he met Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, who mentioned she would be taking the director’s position at the Aspen Art Museum, the idea of a Western took shape.In Téllez’s vision, there is also an element of Noh, an ancient Japanese drama form. Téllez has seen much of the art on trips to Japan; he incorporates into “Oedipus Marshal” the masks used in Noh, and ties together the ghosts from Noh with the ghost town setting for his movie. The film’s duration of 40 minutes is also modeled on Noh.Téllez’s point about there being a thin divide between the mentally ill and the stable is made real in the person of Aaron Sheley. The 25-year-old Sheley is a “member” of Oasis Club House, co-wrote “Oedipus Marshal,” and stars as Oedipus.Sheley is also a movie fanatic, having studied at a Los Angeles film school. According to Téllez, Sheley has two films to his credit.”Never in my life have I worked with someone like this, who’s studied film. It’s incredible,” said Téllez, who has also tapped a local crew – assistant director David Roth, directors of photography Edgar Boyles and Alan Becker, and co-producer Patrick Storey – to assist him. “He has an amazing knowledge of film history, and seen thousands of films.”And he loves Westerns. And a lot of people from film school hate Westerns.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.comVail, Colorado


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