Friday, May 30, 2008

Viva Da Crouton

Have you heard Patrick Durgin on the radio yet?* All scratchy with that NPR "distant expert on the phone from Nairobi" effect, discussing not the Dow but Hannah Weiner ?

*From the homepage, scroll to the bottom (or search the page) for "Mad River Anthology," click on "Most Recent" and whoomp, there's the MP3.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha)

Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is wondrous and dull in the way The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine is wondrous and dull. Both came out in 1968; both pit hapless, child-like musicians against evil expansionist regimes; both celebrate the power of music to knit people together across political and cultural divides.

Both are also essentially translations from one medium to another, and suffer a little in leaving their home genres. Where Yellow Submarine tries to plump up a few Beatles hits into a single story, Ray takes his grandfather’s original tale—itself a sort of redaction of various folk tales—and stretches it over 132 minutes of continuous, stuck-in-your-seat movie action. The result’s a sequence of loosely woven, cleverly realized episodes that don’t quite add up to a plot.

Threading through the movie is a persistent concern with the touchy relationship between artists and their audience, and the tissue of entitlement and expectation that connects them. Goopy and Bagha start the film as Beatles in reverse: awful musicians belittled and banished by their local rajas for their clumsy din. Playing together in a forest, they manage to gratify the upside-down aesthetics of the King of Ghosts, who grants them three wishes. Being working artists, they want first of all to eat; secondly, to travel; and only finally to impress people with their music. When night arrives, Bagha realizes they’ve forgotten to wish for a place to live. So they determine to win the singing contest in the Kingdom of Shundi, where every inhabitant but the king is struck dumb, making all the musicians imports. Goopy and Bagha sing; Goopy and Bagha win; Goopy and Bagha foil an attack from the king’s evil twin, urged to war by a sinister prime minister and his wizard; Goopy and Bagha marry the kings’ daughters and end at the credits as princes.

Ray made the film in the Rajasthani desert, and the movie revels in long, deep-focus shots that frame the actors against wide, flat, empty expanses.* The effect is to accentuate the fundamental loneliness of Bagha and Goopy, who trade the hierarchical bonds of village life for the vagaries of audience approval. At the beginning of the movie, Goopy shakes his new tampura at a ploughman and shouts: “Ploughing for you, singing for me!” Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is in one sense an extended meditation on what this assertion might mean. Goopy and Bagha live exclusively by and for their art, free from the pressures of workaday labor. But they’re also subject to whimsical rajas, in steady competition with other singers, unmoored from family and home. (Bagha tells Goopy at one point that he has no family, he’s completely alone in the world.) The musicians’ own alliance is practical rather than feelingful; the mercenary, tobacco-smoking, id-driven Bagha sticks with Goopy’s Gilligan mostly because they can’t get their wishes unless they slap hands with each other.

Against Bagha and Goopy’s magical sounds are a number of silent or “nonstandard Bengali-speaking” characters: the subjects of Shundi, made dumb by a plague; the evil wizard, who speaks a made-up language of his own; the King of Ghosts, who talks in speedy Martian rhyme; his ghost dancers, who pantomime a sort of allegory of India's history; the soldiers who freeze, unspeaking, whenever Goopy and Bagha play. In their key competition number, Goopy himself apologizes for singing in a foreign language (Bengali is apparently non-native to the imaginary Shundi). A magic powder at the end of the movie restores the power of proper speech—and song—to everyone in the kingdom. With Goopy and Bagha married off into the royal family, all wishes fulfilled, this democratic spell could be read as a passing of the creative baton from the "enchanted" artist to society as a whole: the folk song given back, at last, to the folk.

*Just the opposite of the cramped interior spaces of

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dept. of Repentance

Am talking to my neighbors about the condition of my lawn.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mahanagar (The Big City)

Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) opens with a closeup of a streetcar’s electric arm sliding along its cable, and the story moves forward with the same mechanical inevitability. Subrata & Arati Mazumdar are a young couple trying to support an extended family on the mean streets of Kolkata. When Arati decides to take an office job to make ends meet, her transformation from standard-issue village hausfrau to confident, lipsticked urban woman is easy to foresee. Ray made no secret of his debt to Vittorio De Sica, and the movie shows Ray at his Bicycle Thiefiest, crafting a neorealist class weeper with economy and skill.

Anil Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee are appealing leads, but the movement of their story didn’t interest me as much as its geometry. There’s no recurring “Charu’s theme” or dream sequences to let us inside these characters, and except for one or two bravura shots—Subrata smoking in bed behind gauze, Arati tracked with a handheld down a busy Kolkata street—the cinematography takes a back seat to the “face music” Ray relies on to carry the story. (Ray claimed the cramped set he created for the Mazumdar’s apartment limited his ability to do long shots.)

Flanking the couple on either side are two conflicting pairs, who define the edges of possibility in the big city. One is Subrata’s parents, who exercise their traditional privilege of living with their son, but protest Arati’s working outside the home to help support them. Subrata’s father is a retired schoolteacher who’s watched his students prosper in post-Independence India while his own son can’t afford to buy him a new pair of glasses to read with. Stubbornness and caste pride won’t let him tolerate a daughter-in-law working for wages, so he begins looking up his former students on the sly, scrounging for rupees and health care by pretending to lament Subrata’s neglect.

Ray takes a stab at rounding out the picture of the elderly father, who’s pretty much a stand-in for the dead hand of tradition, especially as it’s transmitted through schoolrooms and books. Ray stresses the old man’s frailty, and takes time to show us he’s short on other options. He may also have a point about the debt his students owe him, and all of them—even the grumbler who remembers how quick with the cane he’d been—pony up. But as a long-term solution to the Mazumdar’s dilemma, it’s clear that his isn’t, as they say here in Portland, very sustainable.

On Arati’s side, there’s an opposite pair beckoning the family to modernity. Edith is a smart young Anglo-Indian woman who’s hired at the same office where Arati begins to work. Their boss, Himangshu Mukherjee, is the genial pipe-puffing head of a knitting machine concern. Mukherjee and Edith both represent the thrill (and threat) of mixing that urban life extends. Mukherjee offers his all-female staff rides home in his car, gives lifts to the city poor despite his wife’s worries about their germs, sends his sales team door-to-door in the wealthiest sections of the city, where strange men often answer the bell, and relies on his best women employees to act as his managers. Over the four months of the story, he becomes a sort of “third way” between Arati’s traditional father-in-law and her underemployed husband. He’s “Himangshu,” not “Mr. Mukherjee”; his pipe contrasts with Subrata’s cheap bidis; and his office, with its expansive view of the city, is the aspirational counterpoint to the Mazumdar’s tiny home.

Edith is a more radical product of urban mixing, and lives her life almost entirely in the in-between: half-English, half-Indian; engaged, but not married; speaking English but understanding Bengali. Edith initiates Arati into the mysteries of lipstick and sunglasses, and quickly negotiates a higher commission for the sales team. It’s Edith who also unwittingly exposes the limits of Mukherjee’s broad urban tolerance. When Arati discovers that he’s fired Edith because she’s Anglo-Indian—a reminder of “our ex-rulers” and a threat to the native Bengali talent—she demands that Mukherjee apologize. Earlier, Mukherjee had promoted Arati over Edith because of her softer, more traditional manners; now that same code (the movie implies that Mukherjee insulted Edith’s sexual behavior) gives Arati the courage to resign on the spot.*

At the bottom of the stairs, Arati meets Subrata, who was on his way to see Mukherjee about a new job. Subrata supports Arati's decision, and in an instant the whole movie flips. The future doesn't belong to the Ediths and Mukherjees, who move so effortlessly through the urban milieu, but to couples like the Mazumdars, riding the tension between traditional Indian values and the freedoms of the big city.

*Both Edith and Mukherjee are hard to read, for Arati and for us.The movie holds out the possibility that Mukherjee may be right, or at least half-right, about Edith. Her fiancee never materializes, and when she's home sick from work, Arati finds her dressed and listening to records. Mukherjee claims he would have given everyone a higher commission anyway after a trial period, without Edith's demands in the first week. Edith's presented as a little self-centered and spoiled; it's a fair guess that Mukherjee's right in pointing out she wouldn't have stood up for Arati in the same way.

Likewise, we don't know if Mukherjee really does give rides to the poor as he claims to. His merit-based promotions, while not exactly a sham, are complicated by his prejudice against Anglo-Indians, his preference for Bengalis, and his soft spot for applicants like Subrata who happen to come from his region. At the same time, he has a point when he tells Arati that she's overstepped her bounds as an employee (if not as a woman of principle and compassion). What both Edith and Mukherjee are meant to show, I think, is that this looser urban life has limits and mores of its own: the restrictions aren't all on the side of tradition.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On the Table

Thinking last night how much AC Newman's "On the Table" reminds me of my friend Sean Finney. Until I Googled the lyrics, I'd heard the "Do re mi, innocent" as "don't rate me innocent"; imagine that switch and you've got exactly the aura of Sean's company.

Feeling homesick, clearly.
"On the table, the deal that kept the courts at arms length,
Stealing our thoughts with the force of their non-sequiturs - amateurs.
On the table, the view behind the legs of dancers,
Windows of chance there, lost on the trail of dissent - innocent.
Do re mi, innocent.

On the table, the deal between the thieves and exits,
Common and breathless, shrugging at what they've become - number one.
On the table, the steal that kept the courts at arms length,
Stealing our hearts with the force of the new evidence - innocent.
Do re mi, innocent.

Now the plain blondes are playing along with you
Now the plain blondes are playing along with you

On the table, our hopes become a starting pistol,
Though we have missed all the minutes, we know what we've won.
Are we done?
On the table, the deal between the legs of mankind,
Walking a straight line, copping a plea as they went - innocent.
Do re mi, innocent.

Now the plain blondes are playing along with you
Now the plain blondes are playing along with you

On the table"

Friday, May 16, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: Minority Report (Fin)

Loyal readers of this blog may remember my note about Konrad Steiner’s narration to Minority Report last July. Seeing it this time, in the context of the other performances, it seemed to gather up all the loose memes linking the bill and bring them out in way that’s had me pondering the Zeitgeist, which is up there with drinking orange wine coolers at the Bureau of Things Not O.K. to Do in 2008. Just give me this one Bartles & Jaymes moment.

The piece runs on Steiner’s incisive detournment of the well-known “I am Tom Cruise, ADD master of all futuristic image manipulation” scene from Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel. Dick knew his way around an identity crisis or two, but Spielberg makes the scene every inch about phallic Tom, as the cameras zoom and twirl across his progress from a Fascist glass-and-steel office lobby to the dark and womby Library of Criminal Images.

Steiner “sets” the scene with passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead directing the soul in its state between incarnations, itself an apt comment on the condition of high-octane Cruise-level celebrity, where the gap between the image and the life becomes the ordinary zone of existence. As the piece evolves, Cruise’s frantic search for a man who’s going to commit a crime at some point in the future morphs, at Steiner’s touch, into a race back toward Tommy’s own mediagenic birth. In Steiner’s script, Cruise becomes a sort of private dick of the in-between—it’s a whodunit, after all, with all the generic fixings—confronting a cultural imaginary studded with other Tom, Dick, and Harrys who complicate, or maybe create, his own unsolved mystery of origin, not fully aware he’s all smoke and mirror image. The Who’s Tommy, Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Doubting Thomas, Dick Tracy, Tricky Cad, and infamous South Park parody Tom all make rapid-fire appearances as the movie plays Where’s Waldo? on “Tom Cruise,” the franchise played by the man who’s playing the images. It’s a heady pinball machine of a ride and I’m missing huge chunks of it, but the speed, and the fear you might miss something crucial if you blink, seems part of the point: form mimics function mimics Memorex mimicking Tom.

Aside from the happy correspondences you get on a bill of eight films—two Passions, three science fictions, two sets of bodies floating, two interrogations, etc.—what Steiner’s piece brought home to me was how many of the performances had to do with ontological uncertainty, a Pinocchio-like feeling that we’re real but not really real, in need of something to yank us out of the in-between. There was LRSN’s opening image of two men looking at a baby, talking about getting reborn; Sailers’s “rebirth” scene in the aborted car crash, along with the ‘double Andreas’ theme; my own faux Brits rising to the ceiling in Mary Poppins, deflating when there’s no English left to fill them; Cole & McGinnes’s bird brains, “pure plastic” and not knowing what it is that makes them persons; Sand’s dead-but-not-quite Oregonians, flickering up from the past to give birth to us; Berton’s morph into Erofeyev’s superhumanly drunk itinerant in the Abel & Daedalus scene; Larkin’s Joan, “constituted” by laws and voices that aren’t her own.

Maybe it’s the war, maybe the economy, maybe whatever it is Monsanto and grad school feeds us. But if poets are still the antennae of the race, I wonder what's going on at the other end of the feelers.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: Judex

I’ve enjoyed Mac McGinnes’s performance to Judex forever (if 2005's forever), but I think I only came close to getting Norma Cole’s script this time around in Portland. In retrospect, the block was pretty simple. Because you see birds everywhere on the screen, I was thrown by all the references to monkeys. The birds come in the form of guests at a costume ball, each wearing exact and exquisite masks that encase the whole head, transforming the wearers into weird Max Ernsty avian/human hybrids in punctilious evening wear. The action centers on a magician, who produces doves or pigeons or whatever it is magicians produce from the partygoers’ sleeves and folds. Judex himself is a famous French detective—the film is Franju’s homage to (copy of?) the prior silent serial—who asserts the powers of ratiocination against the shameful instincts that drive man, that “serious monkey,” to crime.

The strangeness of a situation where the guests shed their own identities for pleasure, and take such a child-like pleasure in the birds they imitate, seems to be the starting-point for Cole’s meditation on the vanity of identity—our tendency to puff the self up through philosophy, cultural frippery, and the “monkey see, monkey do” mimicry of formal social codes. The brainy humor of the piece comes from the gap between highfalutin’ concepts like “the Heideggerian conjugation of the personal” and the “shameful poetry” of our “inadmissible passions,” which punctures the high-flown diction in the form of homey “yups” and “kiddos.” Franju’s magician suggests the sleight-of-hand it takes to make us forget those few genes that separate us from the apes, but also the conjurer’s ability to reveal our sense of what’s true to be a trick, pulled from thin air. “They seek the truth too far from themselves, while it is right near them”: up a sleeve, behind the mask, in the cup you’ve just sipped from, there on the screen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: The Passion of Anna

Everyone I’ve talked to about Cynthia Sailers’s treatment of The Passion of Anna mentions one scene in particular. Max von Sydow, the human epitome of Scandinavian despair, slowly reads a typewritten letter. Ingmar Bergman runs the camera in close-up across the sentences, at the same speed and with the exact visual pauses that von Sydow’s character might use, as if the words are worth the same intensity and attention as any less inward, more kinetic filmic event.

Part of what makes the scene so memorable, at least as Sailers used it in her piece, is the way it casts the solitary act of reading as a concentrated instance of group dynamics. Through the medium of the letter, von Sydow brings his character into a new connection with the person who wrote it, and the person it concerns; mirrors his situation as an actor speaking Bergman’s script; and ventriloquizes Sailers’s own version of the letter in her capacity as the film-teller, who pulls the voiceover of the reader reading the letter—that age-old device for depicting interiority—into her own orbit of concerns.

Fittingly, Sailers’s concerns seemed to be largely those suggested by the scene: the tension between individuals and groups; the provisional, even ventriloquized, nature of the self; and the ontological uncertainty involved in the act of playing at being someone else. Sailers’s script, which drew on her training as a therapist, explored the oscillation between the drive for solitude and “a longing for affinity” (Bergman’s phrase) with others, a theme her piece teased out over ten one-minute scenes skillfully assembled from across the film. Linking them was a backbeat of aggression and violence provided by a subplot involving the random killing of animals on the island. The atmosphere of muted Nordic gloom, all significant pipesmoke and woodcutting and stoical swigs of aquavit, added to the powerful sense of inwardness her piece seemed to worry and torque.

The climax in Bergman’s film comes when von Sydow’s character, Andreas, realizes he’s been a stand-in all along in Anna’s mind for a prior Andreas, the husband she killed in a car accident. (Not so unlike the position of von Sydow himself in his long partnership with Bergman.) When Anna tries to recreate the trauma incident with Andreas 2, Sailers turns from interpersonal psychology to questions of being, as Andreas prepares for a new birth of sorts from the womb of the car: “My body pursues its own ideas. I was aborted”; “born as a girl.” My predominant impression from the scenes Sailers chose, and the script she read across them, was of how plastic the self is, and how apt we are to resist that insight, expressing our yearning for connection with others—its own kind of self-disappearing—in terms of violence, anger, and cruelty. In the final scene though, as von Sydow faced his psycho-spiritual rebirth, her piece had me thinking that Andreas had pushed through the shell of the ego to an entirely new beginning: semblance, truth, jouissance.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: William Cheney

There’s a side to neo-benshi that involves “hijacking Hollywood”—taking back the movies from the fell networks of production and distribution that deliver these knots of congealed capital in quarterly profusion to our screens. Kaia Sand’s performance took a different approach, using the amateur footage of William Cheney, a mid-century Oregon machinist, to explore the dialectical push/pull between the local and the global, the node and the network, the irreducible strangeness of the past and the present-day stencils of meaning that tidy it into history.

Sand structured the piece around the conventions of the newsreel—“Greetings from this hot future, we are broadcasting empire waste”—and imagery from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with its atmosphere of impending disaster, ecological guilt (“we shot the albatross”), and water, a vanishing resource that threaded through nearly all of Cheney’s clips. From the opening shot of a fountain, to a boat pushing through the coastal waves, to ‘40s vacationers on beaches, to tribal dipnet fishing at Celilo Falls—and the federal dams they were flooded to make way for—Sand’s montage stressed Oregon’s unique relationship to water, a source of the region’s economy for centuries.

Water has a number of contradictory meanings for the Northwest. A producer of smelt and salmon, it also connects the area to the wider channels of global trade that threaten to destroy any local abundance, part of the larger irony of a world economic system in which “Haitians are importing sugar,” a resource that “once grew nearby.” In the face of global warming, water is also a double threat to the future: first floods as the ice caps melt (“cities flooded, cars rusted low”), then its elemental opposite, fire. (“2050 how hot will it get?” Sand asked against Cheney’s images of a building in flames.) “What we touch,” she read at one point, “touches us,” and her piece turned Cheney’s footage into documentary of a reach that extends past any innocence.

What I admired most in Sand’s performance was the way it challenged our own complicity as passive viewers of a process that also implicates us. The scratchy, old-timey, home movie quality of Cheney’s films invites a certain presumption of quaintness—the same kind of “never such innocence again” feeling you get when looking at your grandparents’ photo albums, or watching wartime newsreels knowing the Allies won. Sand’s script resisted that easy distancing, exhorting us to connect to the figures on the screen not as audience but heirs, “born breach in this hot future,” subject to the same complex ecology of capital and memory as the down-home folk in the film. “Who will live our own tale?” she asked. “Are we viewing the past or the future?” “To recall or forecast …?” In Sand’s narration, the past became a sort of Petri dish for examining the historical process that’s growing our future, the local a sharp diagnostic of the hot world to come.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: Solaris

Around the same time that Andrei Tarkovsky was planning his cinematic riposte to Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a former telephone cable layer named Venedikt Erofeyev was struggling to publish Moscow to the End of the Line, the prose poetic odyssey of a heavily boozed telephone cable layer on a train ride from the capital to the outlying town of Petushki. David Abel & Leo Daedalus created a multilayered commentary on narrative, meaning, spiritual longing, and political oppression by brilliantly speaking Erofeyev’s lines through a key character in Tarkovsky’s film.

The scene they chose was appropriately one of the most “down to earth” in Solaris: the “film within a film within a film” where Kris Kelvin watches old footage of Berton, the cosmonaut who preceded him into space some years earlier, being interrogated by a panel of scientists curious to determine the truth of what he saw. The footage is black-and-white, and the examination room is hung with giant posters of figures resembling Lenin and Marx. It’s hard not to read into the scene Tarkovsky’s frustration with Soviet censorship, and Berton’s nervous hesitations in the face of the experts’ questions bore a strong resemblance to Larkin’s Joan of Arc. In both pieces, the presumption of truth came off as a means to bludgeon the different into compliance, while uncertainty, aporia, and doubt became heroic.

Leo Daedalus gave a hilarious range of voices to Berton’s interrogators, who began by declaring themselves members of an unnamed “Institute” that aims to make sure films are “good, but not too good.” They’ve called in Berton as a dialogue specialist to dumb down some of their recent product and confirm that the scripts are orthodox. But once Berton begins talking, out comes a rambling catalog of drinks and misdirections as Erofeyev’s narrator details an inebriated trip across Moscow in which he managed to miss seeing the Kremlin. The idea that you could travel through the capital and not see the metonym for Soviet power has its own political implications that nicely underscore Tarkovsky’s. But Berton’s disjointed narrative also turned to metaphysical questions about the state of being human, “superhuman,” or “anti-human” (depending on how much and what you’ve had to drink) that played wryly against Tarkovsky’s own liturgical aesthetic. Tarkovsky’s Berton looks serious and shattered, traumatized by a supernatural experience that the scientists don’t want to acknowledge he’s had. David Abel miraculously succeeded in synching up phrases from the English translation of Erofeyev’s text with the actor's Russian lip movements, so that Berton’s gestures became exactly those of a puzzled alcoholic trying to reconstruct what it is he did the night before.

As the piece goes on, the interrogators are gradually drawn into Berton’s idiosyncratic story, until their questions turn into expressions of genuine curiosity (“Sherry. Did you have any sherry?”). Eventually, the account of the various bridges, stations and drinks downed between them comes to seem like a metaphor for narrative itself, the interrogators insisting on linear progress—the fastest route, the easiest transfers—with Berton as the champion of divagation: “If you want to go right, go right,” Abel says for him at one point. “I’m not asking you to do anything.” Given the context of the scene—and the politically fraught implications of the film-telling form, where the benshi "takes control" of the movie by speaking for someone else—“not asking” amounts to an ethical imperative. In the center of the scene, Berton shows the panel a film of what he saw in his transcendent moment on the surface of Solaris. Turns out there's no Kremlin up there, either.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: The Passion of Jeanne D'Arc

Consider this still and youve got the gist of Carl Dreyers 1928 classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, a facey, affecting melodrama of male power out to crush the Other. Maryrose Larkins treatment emphasized the instruments of patriarchal control, with the wheel and the rack incidental to the legal formalities and structures of repetition that constitute Joan as a legitimate criminal subject.

Against Eric Matchett’s quick metallic beat of dripping water, rushing the action forward through silent time, Larkin read a series of short poems built around procedural language from the trial transcript. (“That the articles should first be read for her; that the articles …”) On the table in front of her, Larkin had a boxy device with a slit on the top that took in large magnetized cards—about the size of a ScanTron exam—to read back pre-recorded phrases in a mechanical masculine voice. (The machine, she told me later, was used for speech therapy in the ‘70s, another governor of the ‘correct’.) Larkin punctuated her reading with run-throughs of the cards, sometimes speaking in unison with the machine, sometimes interrupting the card’s progress through the device to abbreviate and control its repetitions.

What impressed me about Larkin’s approach was the way it called attention to one of the most salient features of a neo-benshi performance: that time becomes hostile to the performer, since the action has to take place against the film’s pre-existing rhythm. Konrad Steiner describes neo-benshi as a dance, as you work alternately with and against the movie’s movement. Larkin’s piece suggested another analogy; a heresy trial, where orthodox film-time tries to push things forward to a conclusion the benshi doesn’t necessarily want, and resists, like Joan, through her silences and hesitations, using strategic appropriations and counterspins of the accuser’s language.

By the time the clip delivered us “dans le chambre de torture” (the intertitle cards were another source of speech not the benshi’s own), we were ready for Dreyer’s special way of depicting Joan’s horror: a spiked wheel cranked at top speed, the operator looking more like a factory worker—or a projectionist—than a 15th-century monk. In the movie, Joan passes out at the sight of the wheel, as if to suggest she’s already been crushed by procedure, and any physical pain would be redundant. Larkin’s piece seemed to make a similar point, while at the same time mapping the benshi’s experience of speaking in sync with the film onto Joan’s experience in front of the tribunal. Somehow, between the speech machine and the script’s repetitions and Larkin’s refusal to match the language up directly with events on the screen, the time came to seem entirely her own, and you felt in the end that Joan, for all her suffering, had won.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: Logan's Run

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.

Monday, May 05, 2008