Saturday, 28 March 2009

Music for Your Movies 2


Pram are another band who emerged from what appears to have been (and no doubt still is) a particularly vibrant scene in Birmingham in the 90s, which also included Broadcast, Plone, the 7-Inch Cinema club and more recently Seeland and The Modified Toy Orchestra (soon to be seen – and they have to be SEEN – at the Bristol Arnolfini gallery). Along with these fellow-spirits, they have an abiding fascination with the shadowy corners of the cinematic landscape. This can readily be discovered through a viewing of their recently released and wonderfully-titled dvd ‘Shadow Show of the Phantascope’.

The live footage reveals the variety of film clips which are effectively used in their back-projection. They have an obvious love of animation, particularly of east-European origin or influence. There are extracts from the Quay Brother’s Street of Crocodiles, with its trepanned dolls jerking about through dusty, box-like interiors where hardware seems to have a life of its own. There is also a clip from what looks like one of Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animations (also used in the video for song the Owl Service) in which a little girl in a cloak with a basket (Little Red Riding Hood, I presume) makes her way through a haunted, Arthur Rackham-esque forest, observed by an oversized owl which looks like it could swoop down and carry her up in her claws with minimal effort. The flight of Faust and the Devil from F.W. Murnau’s take on the tale creates a kinetic sense of vertiginous motion which perfectly compliments the music. There are shots of Candace Hilligoss from Carnival of Souls, either wandering across the deserted concourse of the haunted fairground or looking out into the audience with wide-eyed bewilderment. The corridor from La Belle et La Bete, with its slowly moving arms acting as brackets for flaming candelabras, provides an effective impression of receding space behind the band. There are extracts from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, its dream figures drifting through the harsh glare of the Californian sun. Then there is the final scene from Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, in which he pays tribute to Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires and its descendants such as George Franju’s Judex and Nuits Rouges. The clip shows Irma Vep slinking across the rooftops, the scratching and scoring of the film turning her into a creature of fearful yet timeworn power, shooting off magical rays of light and fire.

Pram’s own videos and the film-makers with whom they are associated further explore these influences. The short film which accompanies the recent single Beluga begins with a pastiche of the opening credits of The Avengers, although this version features a white-masked Emma Peel, who the credits refer to as Diana Scob. She is a combination of Diana Rigg and Edith Scobb, the star of Georges Franju’s Yeux Sans Visage. The video continues its Avengers pastiche with Diana/Edith driving along English country lanes before finding herself imprisoned in an op-art fun-house, observed by unseen watchers – a direct homage to a well-remembered episode. Also well-remembered is the finale of Yeux Sans Visage, which is reproduced here with uncanny accuracy. The actress in particular perfectly captures the extended arms and hesitant gestures of Edith Scob as she emerges from the catacombs into woods at night.

The group clearly have a love of masks, perhaps reflecting a desire to maintain a certain anonymity. Both Sleepy Sweet and The Owl Service see them donning various animal disguises. The former sees them enjoying a rural Edwardian picnic in a pastoral setting whose resident fauna are bright, colourful and plastic. Music is provided by a wind-up gramophone and a pump-organ. The whole (particularly with the sudden animal transformations) exudes an atmosphere redolent of Jonathan Miller’s Alice and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which it would be surprising if they hadn’t seen.

Beluga was directed by Scott Johnson, and Pram provide the music for several of his short films. They perform an unnerving, scratchy improv backing to his short Poe collage The Divine Edgar, which showed at the 7 Inch Cinema. This matches subliminal images from Poe adaptations to the slowly increasing beat of a heart, a la The Tell-Tale Heart. Corman’s AIP Poe adaptations are prevalant, particularly The Tomb of Ligeia, but there are also flashes of an animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart which was narrated by James Mason and also a subliminal glimpse of the devil-girl from Kill Baby Kill as replicated by Fellini in his section of the Poe anthology film Spirits of the Dead. Fellini’s segment ‘Toby Dammit’ is really the only part of that film worth watching, although Jane Fonda’s stab at a French accent (really not at all bad to my ears) in Roger Vadim’s otherwise excruciating piece of softcore indulgence Metzengerstein is probably worth sampling for a few minutes. Brother Peter simply doesn’t bother. Scott Johnson also directs a strangely affecting short, Kraft, the eponymous character of which chooses to burn his obsessively maintained collection of puppets when he is threatened with eviction. Again, the influence of East European animation is in evidence.

As it is in the film for Siniestro, a piece of stop-motion animation produced by the dancingdiablo group. This is like Jan Svankmajer at his most full-blooded, featuring vampiric figures, mutated forms from Victorian curiosity cabinets and battling wooden heads which could be taken directly from the Czech animator’s version of Faust. Keep In a Dry Place and Away From Children is made by the animation team of the Bolex Brothers, who also produced the excellent feature The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. This features a destructive baby who rivals the tot of Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive for grotesqueness. His battered toys do the best to temper his worst excesses, but they are wearily fighting a battle which is unlikely to end in anything other than disaster.

Pram’s own music bears out the influences which are found in their films and those of their associates. The Owl Service, with its panicked chorus of ‘animals, darkness and trees/between me and where I live’ indicates an affinity with Alan Garner and probably also the 60s tv adaptation of his Welsh-set drama of recurrent myths. Carnival of Souls (from the EP Music for your Movies – you see where I get the title from) is a fairly straightforward evocation of the feelings of Candace Hilligoss’ haunted character from Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic. Singer Rosie Cuckston evokes her sense of dread with the words ‘they come in twos and threes/with painted faces turned towards me/all the ghosts of my past/they dance to music that I cannot hear/but I know haunts me’. The covers of Somniloquy and Dark Island have the atmosphere of Carnival of Souls about them, too, so this is clearly a very influential film for the group. El Topo from North Pole Radio Station could only really refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s renowned head movie (unless it’s about a Spanish mole). The Doors of Empty Cupboards from the same album has a very Svankmajer-ish sound to it too. The song Meshes In The Afternoon on the album Helium (and the EP Meshes) directly gives the nod to Maya Deren’s film of the same name and further points to their love of films which explore the haunted world of dreams. I’d like to think that the last track on the album, Shadows, refers to the John Cassavetes film, but it doesn’t. The recent EP The Prisoner of the 7 Pines features an ‘Aguirre Wrath of Godsy’ mix of the track The Silk Road which suggests a passing familiarity with the works of Werner Herzog, or at least his composer-in-residence Florian Fricke aka Popul Vuh.

So, a cinematic mix of the sinisterly sepulchral, the dreamily surreal and the playfully fantastic, which could also serve to describe up the sounds which Pram make.

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