The New Talkies played to one nearly full and one overfull house in Portland on Saturday, “house” being literal and generously provided by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, two Bay Area visual artists who transplanted to Portland last year. To get to the narrow stairs that led to their studio, the audience passed through a living room filled with autoharp, pump organ, player piano, Christmas lights, and framed artwork that formed a sort of gallery of the Bay Area’s emerging masters. Donal and Michael are currently working on a film, October Country, based on Donal’s photographs and interviews with his family in up-upstate New York, a zone of quasi-rural Rust Belt superstition and ruin where ghosts are an obsession and an industry (one town requires that every Main Street business owner be a licensed medium) that Donal goes back to document in serial installments each Halloween.
I’d seen the Portland half of the bill rehearse at David Abel’s loft only the night before, so the show was almost as new to me as it was to the audience. David Larsen opened with the opening scene from cheesy ‘70s sci-fi cult classic Logan’s Run. His clip focused on the faux Roman trappings of Michael Anderson’s Fascist-chic future, all mauve togas and fatal arenas and slim males bonding over violence. The piece formed a campy diptych with his 2005 rescue of Orlando Bloom’s Troy, where some of the same concerns with competition, display, the erotics of combat, and the aggression inherent in groups played out on the digitally enhanced beaches of Cabo San Lucas.
In LRSN’s hands, both films get way better than they deserve. There’s a witty skewering of their steroidal pretensions to grandeur (right down to LRSN's singing of "We Are the Champions" at the 'exploding arena' scene), but balanced with a sharp awareness of how far they go in expressing truths about social behavior most of us would rather ignore. In each of his pieces, time future and time past become a theater where we dress up in the forbidden urges of our imperial present, a testosterone-fueled domain where “cop show banter makes the world go round again”—back to its beginning in, say, Achilles and Patroclus, or victims crushed for pleasure in the Colosseum, or cities of the East plundered just for the sexual thrill of the kill. LRSN’s interest is in the tropes and types that make our world feel like it’s always circling around again, the future a kind of remake of the archaic past, not quite immortal but “Immortalistic,” stuck with the same epic drives on a made-for-TV scale.*
LRSN folds both movies into a busy verbal environment that’s half Homer half U.S. vernacular, creating a complex rhetorical swagger indebted in part to the wry bombast of Maldoror, in part to hip hop, and in part to the classical Greek and Arabic sources (curse, diss, hex, boast) that feed his scholarly work. The language mirrors and mocks the pasteboard glamour of the films’ mise en scene, which LRSN managed to connect here with Western imaginings of perfectly ordered societies from Eden (“the plants all chubby”) to Lemuria and Atlantis. Why is it our Utopias are always so Fascist? What’s behind the urge for immortality, where the gorgeous stay forever young but the imperfect get zapped? What is it that’s so attractive about watching the helpless suffer, and which is worse: the primal delight we take in that display, or the civilization we rely on to clean up the mess and tell us they got what they deserved? The movies are funny, but the questions LRSN asks through them aren’t, and it’s the tension between the laughs and the distance we’re given to think about why it is we’re laughing that creates the unsettling energy of his poetry. Immortalistic.
*"Immortalistic" is the title and last word of LRSN's piece.
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