Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Vampyres

Thoughts on the film by José Ramón Larraz

Putting together a short comment for MUBI, I wrote the following: "With its atmospheric locations, painterly shot compositions and use of natural lighting, Vampyres is a grindhouse film that succeeds in dipping a toe or two into the esoteric world of the arthouse movie. Despite its minimal plotting, the story sustains interest and has a few surprising developments, but it can't compete with certain similar films by the great Jean Rollin, who could have injected this particular brand of exploitation with something more dreamlike, hypnotic and surreal."

I drafted the above almost automatically. At the time it seemed a good enough means of expressing (within the minimum character limit available) the film's strengths and weaknesses. I was content to leave it there and move on to something else when I started to question the film's deeper merits. I was thinking about how, from a surface perspective, the "vampiric" characters of Vampyres (1974) seemed to lack a political or sociological component. What was the subtext? Was the film simply a work of empty exploitation designed to shock and titillate the undiscerning viewer, or was it an opportunity - like with many other horror films before and since - to explore more interesting themes?

In many gothic horror films, the presentation of the "monster" - be it werewolf, vampire or something else - is often a figurative stand-in for something more theoretical, or subtextual. For instance, in Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) by F. W. Murnau, the vampire sweeps across the landscape like a literal plague. It becomes in the process a kind of harbinger of sickness; a physical black death. In the later remake by Werner Hezog, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), this "plague" becomes a possible invocation of the encroaching darkness that would infect the German psyche in the early to middle parts of the Twentieth Century. For Herzog, the vampire is almost a portent of the Weimar Republic; that period of decadence and ruin that led directly (or indirectly) to the rise of National Socialism, and later fascism and war.


Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror [F. W. Murnau, 1922]:


Nosferatu the Vampyre [Werner Herzog, 1979]:

In these films the vampire is symbolic; a personification of something greater than its single form. Later vampire films, such as The Hunger (1983), Interview With the Vampire (1994) and The Addiction (1995), would use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS, homosexuality and drug addiction respectively, while a more recent vampire film, Byzantium (2012), found parallels between its vampiric protagonists and the experience of asylum seekers forced to flee their native homes and live nomadically in foreign countries.

Thinking more about this particular film by José Ramón Larraz, I started to wonder if I'd sold the movie short. While I think it's easy to be blindsided by the sleazier aspects of the film - its low-budget nature, wooden performances, perfunctory dialogue, etc - there is something about Vampyres that seems to connect, albeit in retrospect, to a more interesting interpretation. It's a reading of the film that seems analogous to that of the aforementioned Interview With the Vampire (both the film version by Neil Jordan and the original 1976 novel by Anne Rice) in which the relationship between the two vampire characters could be seen as a metaphor for a homosexual relationship in the times before same-sex partnerships were more widely accepted.


Interview with the Vampire [Neil Jordan, 1994]:

In Vampyres, the lesbian lovers at the centre of the film are forced to remain hidden; living a nocturnal existence away from the conventional society. In the opening scene of the film, the couple, during an act of love, are punished and destroyed for their natural, consensual desires, by the literal shadow of puritanical virtue. In the decades, if not centuries that follow, they are forced to feed off various men in a mockery of heterosexual sex.


Vampyres [José Ramón Larraz, 1974]:

Like Interview with the Vampire, the subtext of the conventional vampiric existence is as such one of longing and repression; about two characters bound-together in partnership, sharing time and space, but not legally recognised as part of a "Holy" union. Further to this, the subplot involving the young couple who arrive at the film's manor house location with their caravan in tow (and with it an image of conventional domesticity in miniature) becomes endemic of the threat of the "straight", the conservative conformity of the "normal", or the everyday. In this context, it adds an element of colour to the interpretation, exaggerating the tedium of the heterosexual couple with the transgressions of the central characters. As does the ending, and the necessity of the two supernatural figures to once more take flight into the uncaring wilderness, lost within the margins of society.

In Vampyres, the scenes of heterosexual sex are fittingly grotesque. This grotesquery may have been coincidental - a result of having bad actors floundering into awkward love scenes without the guidance of an intimacy coordinator and literally fumbling their way through - but I think it's intentional. The wild pawing of flesh, the slobbering lips and tongues penetrating open-mouthed encounters, are the antitheses of eroticism. It fits in with the idea of characters forced to engage with a kind of sexuality that isn't felt, but instead becomes a cruel necessity for survival.

Vampyres is the first of two films I've seen by Larraz. While it's interesting enough to spend some time with, I found his subsequent work, The Coming of Sin (1978), to be on the whole a lot more interesting and much more successful in its combination of exploitation elements and art-house mind-games. Nonetheless, Vampyres makes an interesting companion-piece to that later film, with another story about female courtship and female desire under threat from the almost supernatural harbingers of conservative masculinity, guilt and emotional repression.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

The Popular Cinema

A Question of Aesthetics?

What is the popular cinema in the year 2019? Is it this shot of Carol Danvers, aka Vers, aka Captain Marvel - the titular hero from the Marvel™ product of the same name - framed defiantly, with glowing white eyes and a surrounding aura of heavenly lens-flares added in post-production?


Captain Marvel [Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019]:

Or is it this shot, of Samuel L. Jackson's dead-eyed, unnatural CGI head? A bizarre and questionable bit of cinematic hocus-pocus, which brings to mind the borderline immoral horrors of another of Disney's recent atrocities, the creepy "de-aged" Princess Leia from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), or worse, the digitally-rendered resurrection of long-dead actor Peter Cushing in the same film.



Or maybe it's whatever's happening in this shot – which apparently has no aesthetic value whatsoever.



I don't want it to seem as if I'm singling out Captain Marvel (2019) for unfair criticism here. In general I'm not the target audiences for these films, having realised very quickly that Marvel movies were not for me. However, the continuing popularity of such films among worldwide audiences makes them of particular significance when looking at the development of contemporary cinema. Marvel movies aren't just global blockbusters, they're frequently elevated by so-called professional critics to a level that now dominates the cultural discourse.

When I began writing this particular post, Captain Marvel was merely the latest instalment in the decade-long "franchise", and was generating the most attention across both mainstream and social media platforms. By the time I finish writing it, the next instalment, Avengers: Endgame (2019), will no doubt have grossed a billion dollars worldwide and garnered an unprecedented 99% critical consensus rating on the odious Rotten Tomatoes®. The world keeps turning.

While I'm not actively seeking to take anything away from the popularity of these films or besmirch the fan base in any malicious way, I do think the elevation of these movies among professional critics to the level of serious art is incredibly strange, especially since so many of these Marvel movies are mediocre, unchallenging and entirely formulaic. They're built around often incredibly conservative values, including the repeated framing of "goodness" and heroism as personified by beauty and/or physical perfection, and "evil" and villainy as personified by physical disfigurement, disability or the manifestation of the "other" (as in something alien; a safe Hollywood shorthand for "non-white/non-American.")

Worse, the films are increasingly reliant on jingoistic imagery that is pro-war and pro-military, with the worst offender, Iron Man (2008), setting-up an obvious proxy version of the Taliban in order to exploit the realities of the Iraq war and present its protagonist - billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark - as a kind of white (American) saviour. Given the context of Marvel's previous cinematic endeavours, I don't think it's an accident that several shots from the Captain Marvel trailer look as if they've been lifted from an Air Force recruitment video.


Iron Man [Jon Favreau, 2008]:

Commentary or exploitation? Iron Man as the American liberator; bringing peace to a Hollywood facsimile of the Middle-East through a particular brand of violent aggression; destroying entire cities but getting the job done! You can almost imagine parts of the film with the same soundtrack as Trey Parker's brilliantly satirical Team America: World Police (2004).


Captain Marvel [Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019]:


Korean War Era US Air Force Recruitment Poster [Norman Rockwell, 1951]:


Captain Marvel meets the Air Force [Stephen Losey/Air Force Times, 2018]:

While once important films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Manhattan (1979) get cancelled for being "problematic", the propagandist or fascistic elements of the modern Marvel cinema pose no problems for the contemporary critic. Such people are content to suspend the same sense of moral outrage when faced with the latest Disney-backed offering; praising yet another identikit narrative about some physically and intellectually superior, American personified, military sponsored Übermensch, and their battles against a dehumanised alien oppressor who must be stopped, usually by means of destroying an entire city (with no human casualties?) and shooting a beam of light into the sky.

The same critics have similarly lowered the bar in terms of what passes for serious filmmaking. Marvel movies are at best competent, but they could also be described as bland, televisual and entirely reliant on conventional methods of coverage. The imagery, even at its most fantastical, is often boring and familiar; like an endless demo reel from a particular VFX company that keeps repeating itself. Unlike blockbusters of yesteryear, such as The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), etc, these Marvel movies provide no iconic imagery, their soundtracks are unmemorable and their characters lazily coast off the legacy of an available source material. The entire look and feel of Marvel's cinema is the result of a very strict house-style suggestive of committee-level filmmaking. Whether their films are directed by Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon or others, they have a uniformity to them; a sense that their respective makers are not artists or auteurs, but brand guardians.

The Marvel films I've seen have been interchangeable, mechanical and devoid of aesthetic worth. They might thrill on a level of action and spectacle - they might even convince us that their characters have depth and personality because they drop a few quips or wisecracks from time to time - but so what? When the result is a cinema that feels as if it's being created by an artificial intelligence system, predicted by various market-research algorithms and rendered before our very eyes, shouldn't those that position themselves as the gatekeepers of popular culture be asking for something more?


Avengers 2: Age of Ultron [Joss Whedon, 2015]:

The above images are part of a single shot taken from Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015). In the vulgar parlance, this frame is effectively the "money shot"; it's the moment when all the heroes come together to flex their superior might. In context, it could be exciting, even awe-inspiring, but looked at as an aesthetic object, or as a piece of craftsmanship, it's dreadful; the incompetence of this imagery is overwhelming. Compare this absolutely ridiculous visual to any of the great images from the classic blockbuster cinema of the past fifty years and it starts to feel as if the bar for critical approval has never been lower. If a film containing such a moment of complete cinematic kitsch can be acclaimed by the majority of professional reviewers as if somehow comparable to the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925), the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or the Tyrannosaurus attack scene in Jurassic Park (1993), then it's safe to assume that the rules of the game have been rigged.

Obviously audiences aren't wrong to enjoy these films, but when you have images that are as tasteless, impersonal and disorganised as the ones shown here, isn't it the responsibility of the critic to hold such works to a higher standard? A film practically engineered to appeal to the widest possible audience and guaranteed to generate billions in revenue doesn't need the fawning adoration of people who could use their platform to celebrate innovation and risk in the popular cinema, instead of falling on it like an angry mob (as if they're forced to play the defensive for an already bulletproof corporate entity that demands total industry dominance.)

Case in point, Glass (2019) by M. Night Shyamalan. A superhero movie that not only attempts to deconstruct and demystify the conventions of the genre in a visually expressive, almost experimental way, but a film that also acts as a kind of clarion call against the jaded disaffection of the modern world under the presidency of Donald J. Trump. At a time of great cynicism and widening divides between every stratum of society, Glass is a hopeful and optimistic film about giving power back to the powerless, rejecting corporate hegemony and recognising that the people we see as the monsters in society (the "broken", the sick, the disabled) are often the victims of a system that facilitates conformity and social exclusion. Of course, faced with a film that wilfully disregards the popular narrative and refuses to satisfy the all important expectations of genre, or "brand", the critics hated it; and yet Glass remains a fascinating, personal and uniquely cinematic work.


Glass [M. Night Shyamalan, 2019]:

Glass, which received 36% among critics on the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes - compared to 80% for Captain Marvel and 75% for Avengers 2 - is not a film without flaws. The first twenty-minutes are front-loaded with enough action and plot machinations to sustain an entire feature - which creates a comparative feeling of inertia during the more talkative and claustrophobic second act - and it occasionally feels unfocused; attempting to tie up a trilogy's worth of plot-lines while also maintaining its own narrative thread. Compared to its predecessors, the landmark Unbreakable (2000) and the excellent Split (2017), Glass is the weakest of the three films. However, it's also a work that attempts to explore ideas and emotions that other, more mainstream superhero movies, would see as surplus to requirement.

The popular criticisms of Glass among professional reviewers include the film's lack of action, its intimate scale and an over-reliance on a single location. None of these criticisms are actually negative in nature unless we're actively comparing the film, unfavourably, to the standards of what came before; specifically, Marvel's product (and why would critics consciously do this, unless part of an agenda?). The cardinal sin that Shyamlan committed was to make a superhero movie that didn't conform to the popular paradigm; his auteurist leanings and commitment to lower-budgeted cinema was an affront to the corporate ideology that mainstream critics now work to promote.


Unbreakable [M. Night Shyamalan, 2000]:

Turning the comic book movie upside-down; Unbreakable is a film that predicted the trend for self-serious superhero cinema by almost a decade. Dismissed by short-sighted critics at the time as little more than "The Sixth Sense Part II", Shyamalan's film is now a key text in the evolution of the sub-genre; it's arguably the Blade Runner (1982) of the modern superhero movie.

Like much of Shyamalan's cinema, Glass is a film about self-acceptance and empowerment; about rejecting the narrative that's created by governments, corporations and bullies, and instead recognising our own abilities and the characteristics that make us different. It's a hopeful film about communities coming together through grief to create a positive social force. Given the present political landscape and the conversations about self-identity - the attitude of expressing one's own truth, best epitomised by the song "This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman (2017) - it's difficult to think of a more relevant film in the context of the current zeitgeist.

Instead of elevating the hundred-million dollar corporate product that idolises the military war machine and makes heroes out of an embodiment of physical and intellectual perfection, would it not be more beneficial to the cinema, if not society, to elevate and reward the personal, self-financed film that questions the intentions of large corporations and, in its final moments, makes heroes out of characters placed in a mental hospital and demonised as monsters? Would it not be to the betterment of the popular cinema if, instead of rewarding conformity and/or denigrating eccentricity, professional critics were expected to call out films that present monoform or uninteresting aesthetics, and to praise the films and filmmakers that take personal risks?

For me, the popular cinema in 2019 should be aspiring to something closer to Shyamalan's recent work than the mediocrities of Marvel. It should be striving to put on screen images that are intelligently framed and composed with an eye for perspective, lines and texture; it should be aiming to use colour in a way that is expressive of emotions and ideas; it should be seeking to bring back the sheer spectacle of watching a great actor give a thrilling performance, where the physicality of the craft is its own special effect.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Anna Viebrock

A Question of Aesthetics?

When the cinema has continued its slow death-march towards its future as a mostly monoform corporate entity infected by the monotonous soap-opera of television - where images are no longer designed but merely observed as part of a mundane system of illustration - or worse, suggestive of second-hand video gameplay, sans interactivity - where the imagery is just an inert mass of pixels and rendered objects that are dehumanised and depersonalised to the point of no longer expressing anything inspired or unique - what physical art-spaces will maintain the power to occupy our dreams?

Recently, when browsing the internet, I happened across a series of images attributed to the noted costume and stage designer Anna Viebrock. These images had been posted in a Facebook group created for admirers of post-dramatic theatre, which I follow occasionally, when in need of inspiration. Seeing these images set off a lightning bolt that tore through my imagination. They lit a spark of excitement that smouldered into the first giddy embers of a raging inferno, as the use of the architectural space - its depth and perspective; that geometry of intersecting lines and the placement of figures within staged 'frame' - and the play of light and colour, was immensely satisfying, both on a level of aesthetic design, but also in the composition of the accompanying photographs by Walter Mair and Tanja Dorendorf, among others.

Immediately, I felt the need to search out other examples of Viebrock's work and very quickly found the following images on her official website. Once again I was left overwhelmed by the beauty of the staging and the way the respective photographers had accentuated it to make the designs appear all the more expressive, intelligent and startling. Where the imagery of the modern cinema is so often generic, second-hand and presentational, this imagery speaks to something that is difficult to express, but which seems exciting, creative and new.


Tessa Blomstedt gibt nicht auf [Volksbühne Berlin, 15.10.2014]:

Image credit: http://annaviebrock.de/media.html | © Walter Mair


Universe, Incomplete [Ruhrtriennale, 17.8.2018]:

Image credit: http://annaviebrock.de/media.html | © Walter Mair


44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 [Schauspielhaus Zürich, 5.12.2018]:

Image credit: http://annaviebrock.de/media.html | © Tanja Dorendorf


Wunderzaichen [Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2.3.2014]:

Image credit: http://annaviebrock.de/media.html | © Walter Mair


Les Contes d'Hoffmann [Teatro Real Madrid, 17.5.2014]:

Image credit: http://annaviebrock.de/media.html | © Walter Mair

The closest the modern cinema has come to imagery like this is in Peter Greenaway's last masterpiece, Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012), and in the late-period films of Roy Andersson, for instance the recent A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). However, the worlds and imagery created for those films are at the same time less tangible, as they're separated by the screen. With theatre, there's the sense that you could reach out and touch the surface of these worlds - to feel the bare wood or the dried paint on each facade - or step inside the frame and walk around it; hearing your own voice projected out across an auditorium. Confined as I am to a beautiful but rural part of the country, I'm denied the privilege of modern, cosmopolitan and creative theatre like this; however, looking at the images of Viebrock's work creates an impression of how extraordinary it must be to be faced by designs of this scale and intelligence.

At a time when most cinema is so boring that its audiences barely leave the house to go and see it, the aesthetic majesty of these productions, as captured in the beautiful compositions of their photographers, makes me want to take on a second job to supplement my miniscule income. That way I could afford to board a boat or plane, and could travel to parts of the world where such theatre is possible and where such imagery still exists.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Mia Goth

Thoughts on a film: Suspiria (2018)

Unfortunately I didn't think very much of director Luca Guadagnino's remake of Suspiria (2018), which might be one of the absolute worst recent films I've seen. Since I don't like to get too negative about the things I write about at 'Lights in the Dusk' I'll try to avoid the specifics as to why I found the film such a lamentable experience. However, if anyone is especially interested in gaining an insight into my issues with this new version of the Dario Argento masterpiece, I did leave a short comment about it on my Letterboxd and MUBI profiles.

There were however a couple of things I did like about the film, which are worth clarifying. Firstly, I appreciate that Guadagnino and his collaborators didn't just turn-in a lazy imitation of the Argento film. While it shares a title and some similarities in terms of character and plot, this recent Suspiria has its own aesthetic and philosophical identity that is distinct and original. The changes don't always make for a better experience, but the effort to take the film somewhere different was greatly appreciated. Moreover, Tilda Swinton is excellent in the role of Madame Blanc; the Mary Wigman/Pina Bausch-like leader of an avant-garde dance company, as well as the witch that presides over its hidden coven. [Less successful was Swinton's superfluous casting as an aging holocaust survivor, Dr. Jozef Klemperer; a piece of stunt-casting so unnecessary and distracting that the production company had to create fake social media accounts for a bogus actor, 'Lutz Ebersdorf', before finally admitting what was plainly obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.]

I also liked the appearances from several cult cinema icons, including Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk and Jessica Harper (returning here from the original film), as well parts of the soundtrack by Thom Yorke [although I like the soundtrack album more than its appearance in the film itself, as I think Guadagnino misuses it.] However, the main draw of the film for me was the casting of the actor Mia Goth, who plays Sara, one of the dancers studying under Madame Blanc.


Suspiria [Luca Guadagnino, 2018]:

The film's standout sequence has Goth's character playing an Alice in Wonderland figure; lost in a maze of the building's architectural mystery, which is never fully developed. Here we have the mirror as an obvious "looking glass" through which the character must pass. Or is it something that imprisons her, suggesting the idea of reflection - self-analysis and self-actualisation - where the seeds of doubt flower into a doppelganger, or "mirror twin"; presenting a visual representation of a divided mind and divided body in a divided city like 1970s Berlin. Throughout the film hints at these ideas, but does nothing with them.

Goth is an actor I first encountered in Lars von Trier's late masterpiece Nymphomaniac: Vols. I & II (2013). Since that film, she's carved out a career working with interesting filmmakers on projects that are strange, ambitious, challenging and non-commercial. Her appearance in Suspira is bookended by appearances in Gore Verbinski's bizarre and unclassifiable A Cure for Wellness (2017) - a beautifully shot, almost dreamlike work that in its combination of psychological horror and adult fairy-story has a touch of the original Suspira (1977) about it - and Claire Denis's English-language science-fiction drama High Life (2018), where she appears alongside Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche.

In Suspira, the film comes to life in the brief scenes that focus on Goth's character and her growing suspicions that something at the dance academy isn't quite as it appears. Here, she's essentially playing this film's version of the Stefania Casini character from Argento's classic, but with a far more compelling narrative arc. However, I would argue that the qualities of Goth as an actor and her approach to the character of Sara actually make her a far more relatable presence to the aforementioned Jessica Harper; the lead in Argento's film. There is an innocence to the way Goth approaches this character that is at once childlike but at the same time fearless and undeterred. She plays the character like Alice in Wonderland, exploring the labyrinthine lower depths of the academy with a strange combination of fascination and fear. These later scenes are mesmerising and should've formed the backbone of the entire film, which is far too often weighed down by the wooden lead performance of Dakota Johnson. In fact, if we were to ever suffer the indignity of a remake of Argento's great follow-up to Suspiria, the similarly bizarre and dreamlike Inferno (1980), it would only be palatable if it featured Goth in the role played by Irene Miracle.

Based on her choice of projects so far, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Goth is a cult Euro-cinema superstar in the making; a modern-day Tina Aumont, Sylvia Kristel or Nastassja Kinski, or even someone who might further develop and mature into a future Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, or indeed, any of the older cult actors that appeared alongside her in Suspira. Her performance here is subtle, nuanced and fascinating; at odds with much of the film's tasteless, laboured insanity.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Roundhay Garden Scene

A Mystery?

To talk about the cinema's present, one must first acknowledge its past. Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), one of the oldest surviving fragments of motion picture history, could be called, at its most dismissive, a camera test; a two-second recording that captures four individuals wandering around the gardens at Oakwood Grange in the suburb of Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire. Obviously intended as an experiment in recording movement, the few seconds of surviving footage have, with the passage of time, become possessed with a feeling of mystery, if not anxiety. Scratch beneath the surface of its seemingly benign exterior and Roundhay Garden Scene becomes a precursor to the subconscious cinema of filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Jacques Rivette, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and others. Films that are charged with an air of conspiracy, or obscurity; of dream-worlds and paranoia, controlled and manipulated by an unseen system of influences.

Like the aforementioned Kubrick's final masterwork Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Roundhay Garden Scene is a film so suggestive and enigmatic that it lends itself to the kind of Rorschach-like approach to film criticism that I've indulged in here. It becomes a black mirror, so void of deeper meaning that we're compelled to project our own meanings onto it; inventing a narrative where none exists; enlivening its minimal presentation with our own thoughts, fears and concerns. Like the way the metaphorical noose tightens around the lives of the protagonists in Kubrick's last film, the observation of the participants here has an undercurrent of something more sinister. It's as if the events unfolding are being manipulated by an unseen organisation; shadowy forces again at work. It suggests something of the private made public; a kind of open doll's house or glasshouse facade that the audience is invited to peer into; becoming witness to some recreation of "normal" behaviour that's too stylised, mechanical or forced to be considered real.


Roundhay Garden Scene [Louis Le Prince, 1888]:

Much of this particular reading of the film - as something more ominous or insidious than its no doubt innocent intentions - has been undoubtedly coloured by the strange events surrounding its production. Firstly, the death of one of its on-screen participants, Sarah Whitley, ten days after the filming was complete. More significantly, the mysterious disappearance of its 'author' - the early cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince - two years later. The body of Le Prince was never discovered, and several conspiracy theories exist that attempt to explain the course of events. Lastly, Le Prince's son, Adolphe Le Prince, another participant in the film, was discovered shot dead around two years after he testified in court against Thomas Edison about his father's inventions. Such tragedies become like black clouds that hover over the legacy of this film and lead the mind to wander about its conception. While I'm no great conspiracy theorist, I do think it's interesting to speculate.

With its matter of fact title and the mysterious system of circumstances surrounding its release, Roundhay Garden Scene is a film that gives the audience room to dream and to project onto its surface their own subjective and subconscious narrative. It transcends categorisation, being at once a documentary - a recording of an actual scene that captures people long-dead and preserves them forever in this prison of celluloid - and a dramatisation; a recreation of something real turned fiction. The presentation of its participants as they move through the space becomes a dance like the planets in orbit. Like the investigation into the photograph in Michelangelo Antonioni's great masterpiece Blow-Up (1966) I feel like I need to go deeper into this film, to scrutinise the shadows in the window, the gaps between the bushes, the suggestions at the corners of the frame; to unlock the mysteries that surround the film and define its legacy. Another time perhaps.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Discreet Music

Adventures in Ambient Discovery

There's an oft-repeated quote that has been attributed to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa that states: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." While I think the inference of the quote is meant to expose the futility of writing about something that is there to be listened to, experienced and 'felt', it always leaves me a bit perplexed as to why dancing about architecture would ever be considered an inherently bad thing? I suppose because for me it conjures up images and scenes redolent of Wim Wenders' great documentary film, Pina (2011) - inspired by the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch - in which architecture is very literally danced about, in every sense of the world. Would it not be a pretty remarkable and no less valid means of communicating the overwhelming importance (or unpleasantness) of a particular building than putting pen to paper or opening our mouths to speak? Nonetheless, the original quotation came back to me when I thought about how best to express the greatness of the album in question, "Discreet Music" (1975), recorded and produced by Brian Eno.

"Discreet Music" was Eno's fourth solo album and the second after "Another Green World" (1975) to slowly progress towards a style of music that would later be termed 'ambient.' While I wouldn't necessarily categorise "Another Green World" as an ambient record, specifically - its robust sound, strong melodies and sporadic use of live vocals still suggest a prominent art-rock influence - it did contain several tracks that gestured towards the kind of music beginning to blossom into consciousness here. Some tracks from that earlier record, such as Becalmed, or Spirits Drifting, lay the groundwork for the LP in question, as well as subsequent albums, such as "Ambient 1: Music for Airports" (1978) and "Ambient 4: On Land" (1982).

Given the specifics of its sound and concept - the drifting otherworldliness of it - "Discreet Music" remains a difficult album to write about, precisely because, beyond the facts and practicalities surrounding its production and legacy, it's a work that lends itself to the most subjective of voice and the most hyperbolic superlatives. While it might sound achingly pretentious as an endorsement, the sounds, tones and melodies contained here go beyond music in the conventional sense, and become instead like colours dripped into a clear body of water that ripple on the surface before clouding into something more abstract and formless as they sink beneath the depths. As such, listening to "Discreet Music" is like witnessing the same colours bloom into the fullness of life and vibrancy, like flowers do. More than melodies, beats and rhythms, the sound of the music evokes emotional temperatures; feelings of warmth and coldness; contrasting moods and a sense of space.


Discreet Music [Brian Eno, 1975]:

While Eno was inspired by the composer Erik Satie's conception of "furniture music" - meaning music that is intended to blend into the ambient atmosphere of the room; or as Satie himself put it, music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner" - the experience of the title track is never uninteresting or disengaging. The sound of it, as it develops across its full thirty-minute duration, is captivating, if not dramatic, as its melodies and counter melodies drift like little sound clouds across a slow reverberating landscape scene. Like certain analogous records by the pioneering German group Kraftwerk - specifically "Autobahn" (1974) and "Trans-Europe Express" (1977) - this is music that takes us on a journey. With this in mind, I turn my attention back to the original album cover, with its distorted video-image of a dramatic sky above a shadowy city, and its connotations and suggestions of reflection, the ordinary turned extraordinary, and the passage of time. As with the very best examples of album-art, the cover image provides the perfect mirror to the music itself.

As much as I love the album's title track, it's the B-side of the original record that really strikes a chord with me. Here, working with composer and musician Gavin Bryars and members of The Cockpit Ensemble, Eno offers up three different and distinct interpretations of 'Canon in D Major' by Johann Pachelbel. Already one of my absolute favourite pieces of music (and a source of continual inspiration, especially when I was writing my first plays), Eno's variations transform the composition into standalone pieces that feel new and original, but are nonetheless still haunted by faint traces of Pachelbel's original melodies. The music presented across these three tracks is beautiful, transcendent, yearning, sad, mournful and spiriting. It conjure moods, emotions, memories and reflection and gives the listener the room to dream. The impression of these compositions is once again like the passage of clouds as their shadows travel across the patchwork-green landscapes of some pastoral English Arcadia that exists only between the heart and mind. Writing seem ineffectual here as I strain to communicate something that probably exists beyond words. Maybe I should've danced about it instead?