Thursday, 5 August 2010

Genre Collage by People Like Us

Genre Collage was the latest audio-visual delight offered up by People Like Us, the long-running guise from behind which sound artist and sampling magician Vikki Bennett forges whatever found materials she has gathered together and which spark her imagination into surreal associative collages. It was shown (or rather performed) at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol last weekend, and provided a welcome retreat from the hubbub and milling crowds of the ever-expanding annual Harbourside Festival outside into the cool shadows of the cinematic cave. For the genres being collaged were those of the movies, specifically Hollywood films from the 40s through to the seventies (with a few Brit films creeping in). This period, reaching from the war to the dawn of the Reagan/Thatcher watershed, is rich in shared associative memory, and the splices, superimpositions and ironical collisions to which Bennett subjects her material is not only very funny, but affecting on a deeper level, raising spectres of a world which has become unrecoverable and distant but which has left many traces. The parade of faces and scenes are a film buff’s dream, too, with the smug thrill of recognition running into the agonizing knowledge that you’ve seen this one somewhere, if you could just recall... Bennett herself remains in the shadows to the side of the stage, walled off behind a bank of digital technology, palely glowing in laptop light. This was a live performance, but attention was firmly directed towards the cinema screen.

The show was divided into a series of themes and variations, in which cinematic gestures, conventions and atmospheres dovetailed, provided startling and often hilarious contrasts and created surreal and strange new hybrids. The opening sequence drew us in with that most characteristic and seductive of film images, the charismatic star gaze, casting its magnified glamour through the camera lens and out into the audience. As Bennett played a stuttering rendition of the Look of Love, full of crackle and wow and flutter, a series of glances, stares and blank regards were cast to the side, over the shoulder, from beneath lowered lids or hat-brim shaded brow, or held direct and unblinking. These were looks full of love, calculation, anxiety, sorrow or suspicion; eyes tear-filled, shining with joy, shyly averted or boldly inviting. It all begins with Marion Crane glancing nervously in her rear-view mirror, a reflexive look which directs itself to her own back projection screen, forming a complex, multi-angled path of vision which finds its endpoint with the watching audience. Ingrid Bergman, a regular presence in the collage, gives her signature look of forebearance in the face hurt and emotional suffering. Judy Garland’s Dorothy’s are brimful of tears, caught on the brink of spilling over. Christopher Lee sets his features into a mask of fixed seriousness as the Duc de Richelieu in The Devil Rides Out, uttering mesmeric mantras at his possessed young charge. Charles Gray as evil black magician Mocata turns his hypnotic blue-eyed stare upward in the same film, transfixing whoever is on the other end. Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson give narrowed-eye spaghetti western looks of confrontation and appraisal, the later playing his eerie, echoing three note harmonica phrase all the while. And Sabu’s eyes are full of silent pleading as he is compelled into a to crouch down, transformed by another evil magician into the faithful dog Abhu in The Thief of Bagdhad.

Other thematic sequences include a succession of back projection rides, with Hitchcock’s late 50s and 60s films, known for their sometimes shaky use of the technique, heavily featured. Marion’s ride to the Bates Motel in Psycho turns up again. Tippi Hedren takes to the wheel in The Birds, caged lovebirds leaning into the bends beside her. James Stewart cruises the streets of San Francisco after Kim Novak before driving with her to the redwood forests. Cary Grant is a reluctant passenger and drunken driver in North by Northwest. There is also some reckless vintage car driving through the leafy lanes of England from The Devil Rides Out, with more remote magical interventions from the meddlesome Mocata. There are some aerial rides, beginning with Roy Scheider exuding excitement as he looks down from his chopper over the expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge below him (Blue Thunder?). The Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz cackles gleefully (yes, she’s evil, but she seems to have such fun) as she joyrides on her broom, spewing out noxious and literate orange exhaust fumes in her wake. Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang offer birds eye views of British land and cityscapes. And Rex Ingram’s towering, pig-tailed genie soars at full supersonic stretch above the mountaintops in The Thief of Bagdhad. Mists, fogs and obfuscatory miasmas billow in the San Francisco of Vertigo; in a cloud of desert dust raised by a passing Greyhound to envelope the Cary Grant’s solitary figure-in-a-wilderness in North by Northwest, besmirching his grey suit; a menacing swarm of birds fills the sky in The Birds; and a magic fog appears from nowhere in the woods in The Devil Rides Out (yes, it’s Mocata up to his tricks again).

Crazy like a cartoon
A hall of mirrors is stalked by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in Lady From Shanghai and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, before they are shattered by bullet and fist. James Stewart tosses and turns in his troubled sleep in Vertigo, his dreams here visualised by some of the gaudier Technicolor moments from the studio montage sequence in Singing In the Rain; mechanically marching marionettes and a disembodied mouth screaming through a megaphone become the stuff of nightmares. The rather Gilliamesque recession of Jimmy Stewart’s disembodied head, forelock disarrayed into an unhinged Tintin quiff, down a swirling op-art vortex (always a signifier of bug-eyed madness) is a disturbingly stylised moment from Vertigo. It’s full of a feeling of the self-mockery of madness, the sense of having become an unreal and absurd cartoon character (it’s also a sequence which I’m reminded of by the opening credits of Peter Davison era Doctor Who). Here, that mockery is reinforced by the superimposition of Donald Duck’s head over Stewart’s startled features (making him a lame duck?) with other cartoon characters cavorting around him like gleeful imps. A scene in which a perplexed OJ Simpson puzzles over what to do in a control room full of blinking panels and banks of switches and buttons allows for Bennett to produce an array of comedy bleeps, whizzes and swannee whistle swoops, with screens showing scenes from SF movies past. Other control room scenes are intercut, including one from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Francois Truffaut doodles at his keyboard, producing the famous five note theme.

Towards the end of the show, everything comes to an abrupt and worrisome halt, and a message comes up on the screen indicating that the digital signal has been lost. This is not a genuine computer crash, however, but a bit of playful fun with the frustrations of technology with which most of us are familiar. It’s also a rude reminder that we are now in an era in which the medium of film is rapidly becoming an anachronism, and that what we are watching is a digital projection emanating from a laptop computer. Vincent Price’s voice tells us not to be alarmed (always a sure sign that alarm is indeed the appropriate response) and to remain in our cinema seats. Digital crash and projector breakdown are juxtaposed as we see the shadow of a giant creepy crawly cross a blank screen, both announcement and bug invasion taken from William Castle’s The Tingler. There follows scenes of theatrical panic and mayhem taken from various sources, including some taken from Joe Dante’s Matinee, a film which affectionately parodies the kind of shameless showbiz gimcrackery in which Castle liked to indulge. There are also clips from that movie’s film within a film, Mant – ‘half human, half ant – all terror!’ We see the collapse and conflagration of the fairground roundabout at the end of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, an appropriate inclusion since an old steam carousel had been whirling delighted riders around by the docks outside, to the rousing pipe organ strains of a Pomp and Circumstance march (and was it my imagination, or was that Brunel himself in stove pipe hat and frock coat contemplating climbing aboard?). Further destruction was wrought in a sequence based around storms and deluges, conjured and conducted with maniacal pleasure by Conrad Veidt’s wicked vizier Jaffar from The Thief of Bagdhad, throwing a dancer’s balletic gestures against a lightning forked sky. Was this one of the scenes directed by Michael Powell? It could certainly take its place in the Red Shoes ballet with little sense of artistic disjuncture.

Calling Ingrid
Wonder Woman earned a sequence all to herself, Lynda Carter spinning through a giddy succession of transformative twirls, all to a soundtrack of tinkling electric piano fairy dust (I can’t recall whether it was at this point that Bennett introduced her beat-enhanced version of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plumb fairies – it certainly would have been apposite). Gentle fun was also had at the expense of Ingrid Bergman, whose tearful confessionals and declarations of devotion from Notorious and Casablanca were spliced together with respondents who remained coldly indifferent to her melancholic charms; Telly Savalas’ Blofeld from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his mind preoccupied with schemes of world domination through super technology; William Sylvester’s affectless scientist calling from the videophone on the big wheel space station in 2001; and a 50s robot, looking like it could have been knocked together from Meccano and a home electronics for boys kit (as indeed it may well have been), which provides the required romantic responses (the voice of Cary Grant?) but in vain, for alas, it was a love which could never be.

The hills are alive with the smell of napalm
Two outstanding sequences linger in the memory more than others, though. Firstly, a brilliant combination of The Sound of Music with Apocalypse Now, Julie Andrews trilling The Hills Are Alive…whilst Jim Morrison gloomily intones ‘This is the End’ behind her. Elements of the two films are superimposed. Choppers hover over the Austrian mountaintops, and as Julie Andrews runs up the Alpine slopes, arms held wide in joyful supplication, the valleys below her blossom in orange napalm efflorescence. As she skips lightly across the clear mountain stream, she tosses pebbles into the water, and they detonate with the force of highly charged explosives. It was hilarious, the laughter tinged with the same edge of hysteria which accompanies Slim Pickens’ whooping descent on the atomic bomb in Dr Strangelove.

American pastoral nocturne - Night of the Hunter
The sequence using the night river journey of the two children in Night of the Hunter was simply sublime. It’s always been one of my favourite cinematic scenes, with the little boat drifting along beneath the stars, a beautiful folk lullaby accompanying the children as they’re watched over by the creatures of the river bank, safe for the moment from the murderous attentions of their false preacher father, cradled and protected for a magically enchanted interlude by the forces of nature which have chosen to look upon their innocence with a benevolent eye. Here, as the boat drifts towards the geometrical silhouette of a barn on the shore, we see the earthrise from 2001 filling the expanse of the night sky beyond. My jaw dropped at this point, and it’s not often that I experience a clichéd figure of speech becoming a physical actuality, and I had one of those ‘who’s been monitoring my mind’ double takes. It’s a deeply affecting moment, two films which are an integral part of the substrata of my memory suddenly and unexpectedly connected, and with the sense of perfect rightness characteristic of the best dreams. The sky beyond the sleeping children in their drifting boat is also streaked with the plummeting shooting star from It Came From Outer Space, warped by the whirling tornado from The Wizard of Oz, and they even drift out onto the Atlantic, where they pass the looming mass of the doomed Titanic. The motion of the little boat is nudged on by a happy collision of I Can Sing A Rainbow and I Was Born Under A Wandering Star, Uncle Lee whispering a gruff, protective lullaby which lets you know that everything is going to be alright. But it was the image of the sky filled with the arc of star and planet beyond Charles Laughton’s American pastoral nocturne which will really remain in my mind’s eye.

If you want a taste of People Like Us’ audio-visual work, there is a good selection available to view over at UbuWeb, which is well worth a visit in general. For a quick blast, the doll head terror of At The Movies is startling, amusing and just a little bit disturbing. Skew Gardens, meanwhile, is an excellent surrealist collage of nature tamed and contained in the wrought iron of Victorian glass houses, and then unleashed on the concrete and steel terrain of the modern urban jungle. It features a giant caterpillar crawling beneath Blackfriars Bridge. Really, what more could you want?

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