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“Or is there a point that I am missing?”

Imagine if The Paris Review gave you 156 pages in its Spring issue. What would you do?

What Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva did with 156 pages (that’s more than half the issue, by the way) was to create a photo-novella called “Formentera Storyline.” The storyline is simple. “An ad hoc group of ten longtime and tentative friends rents a house on the Spanish island of Formentera,” which is just south of Ibiza. They take Pilates classes, eat a strict diet, and basically try to “remedy the deteriorated lifestyle inherent to their high-pressure, low-stakes, medium-impact jobs in the fashion industry.” They also hope that Paul, who is staying on his yacht in the harbor, will deign to pay them a visit. When it becomes clear that Paul is not going to visit, their utopia quickly descends into dystopia. Alcohol and drugs begin to appear. On the twentieth day they run out of water. The tank on the roof is empty and no one knows what to do. Then things really go to hell. “The top symbolic resource is the lone operational MacBook charger.”

“Formentera Storyline” consists of photographs that are printed nearly full-page, beneath which is the sparse text – usually just a sentence or two per page. No people appear in the photographs, just architectural details, interiors, and images of the surrounding woods. The photographs are much more accomplished and more polished than the text. Perhaps not surprisingly, Étienne and Raban-Oliva are a Paris-based duo that work under the name Partel Oliva, creating fashion videos and music videos.  (Just Google “Partel Oliva” to see examples.)

The images and the text of “Formentera Storyline” tell different stories. Étienne and Raban-Oliva’s photographs extract lush and textured details that lure the viewer into emotional states – calmness, anxiousness, curiosity. A kind of sun-drenched Mediterranean noir, perhaps. On the other hand, the text reads like a dry film treatment. It is written in such a way that we are supposed to recognize a mildly mocking tone, but on the page this tone stays resolutely one-dimensional and insincere. I suspect that Étienne and Raban-Oliva, who seem to work primarily in video, didn’t realize how flat their text would be when not spoken aloud by actors.

After the total dissolution of civility amongst the once-happy commune, the final pages of text become the bewildered, lost voices of members of the “ad hoc group.” Here is the complete text of the last fifty-six pages of the story, which consists of twenty-eight double-page spreads of nearly black images of storm clouds at nighttime (the photographs are more interesting than this sounds):

What are we looking at?
We’re looking at Ibiza.
Ibiza isn’t that way, though, I think.
Can you hear anything?
Is it okay that we don’t hear anything?
That’s because we’re not over there, in Ibiza.
I feel hopeless in a good way.
We’re not looking at Ibiza.
We’re actually looking at Es Calo. Or maybe at Cap de Barbaria.
Cap de Barbaria is behind us.
It’s there, over there.
Remember the crazy shooting star we saw on the second day?
This is way more impressive than any shooting star.
It’s dying down a bit, though.
More like moving away, maybe?
People are dying over there in Ibiza.
Lightning without thunder feels beautiful but empty.
Or is there a point that I am missing?
What aren’t we more scared? Should we be scared?
Are we “transfixed”? Is this it?
I feel like we’ve been waiting too long.
Is something happening?
Is something happening to us right now?

I don’t fault Étienne and Raban-Oliva for doing what they do. They’re pros and they do really slick work and I don’t blame them for wanting to try something a little riskier than the work they do for clients like Kenzo. But I have to wonder what the editorial staff at The Paris Review was thinking. To be honest, they should have given a few pages to James Gallagher, the artist whose collage ran on the cover of the issue.

You can take a look at the first few pages of “Formentera Storyline” here.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Greg Houghton #

    Hi, having come across your blog, after
    wanting to know more about the painter
    who Sebald’s writes about in the final section of The Emigrants, I thought you might
    be interested in a discussion by
    Teju Cole and Alexander Hermon
    about the use of embedding
    photographs in texts. You can find it in Cole’s
    recent book of essays, “Known and Strange
    Things”. Cole writes, of course, very much under the influence of Sebald. His essay
    collection also includes a couple of moving pieces about this influence.

    April 17, 2017
    • Thanks! I have Cole’s book, but this was a good excuse to go back and re-read the fascinating conversation between him and Hemon.

      April 17, 2017

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