Classic Film Tropes Cleverly on Repeat in "Playback"

When you first walk into Fresh Arts and survey the TV screens scattered around the darkened gallery, a quick glance might give you the impression that the screens are stuck on frames of couples embracing or kissing. But upon closer inspection, it becomes steadily apparent that these are not frames, but actors holding these poses, in all their awkward glory.

This ingenious concept is part of Britt Ragsdale's "Duets" series. The Houston artist currently has her video work up at Fresh Arts in "Playback," a show curated by Paul Middendorf of galleryHOMELAND. In four screens, Ragsdale pulls inspiration from familiar scenes out of classic films such as An Affair to Remember and Giant -- couples gazing longingly into each others' eyes, about to kiss, in a dramatic embrace. The videos are even in black and white, some softened to give it that dated, classic look.

Ragsdale uses real couples to copy these poses -- fleeting moments that the artist has stretched out into six, seven, eight, even 12 minutes. What's meant to be a romantic gesture soon becomes less-than-intimate, even pained, due to what Ragsdale describes as "intense scrutiny."

This scrutiny reveals more about human relationships than any film trope can. During the extended shots, one couple rocks slightly back and forth, another starts to pull slightly away. A man jokingly puckers his lips, while another swallows hard, his Adam's apple prominent. At the end of one video, a woman cracks her knuckles, as if relieved that the task at hand is over. Hand-holding is sweet and all, but everyone has their limits.

Ragsdale scrutinizes another film trope in her "Run-Through" series. In The Chase, an actress runs towards the camera -- so close you can see her smudged eye makeup -- gasps dramatically, then calmly walks back to her starting point only to do it all over again. It goes on like that for 20 minutes. The repetition makes the act funny, bizarre and ultimately meaningless, emphasizing how generic this familiar scene is. It's like a horror movie supercut, but more effective.

There is a third video called Don't Talk to Strangers -- a two-and-a-half minute piece that pulls from random archives, with brief shots of things like couples dancing, a cat playing with a string and women getting their hair done. Though significantly busier than the other videos, it's not as engaging. It's worth it to invest your time in the others. You'll never look at classic films the same way again.

"Britt Ragsdale: Playback" at Fresh Arts, 2101 Winter Street, Studio B11, runs now through July 12. The gallery is open Monday through Friday by appointment. For more information, call 713-868-1839 or visit