Friday, 3 September 2010

The Illusionist


WARNING: I give pretty much the whole plot away here.
Sylvain Chomet’s film The Illusionist is his follow up to his animated debut feature Belleville Rendezvous, a warm celebration of stubborn eccentricity and the resilience of old age. Here, he adapts an unfilmed script by Jacques Tati, making explicit the influence of the director and his comedy personae on his previous work. Both share a preference for the more ramshackle traditional ways of life over the glittering temptations of modernity, and both have an eye for the absurd detail. Chomet paid direct homage to Tati in Belleville Rendezvous. The grandmother of the little boy who grows up to be a cycling obsessive has a weathervane modelled on Tati’s postman from L’Ecole des Facteurs and Jour de Fete perching atop her roof, erect and straight-backed in his saddle. Later, the three triplettes of Belleville, aged ex-nightclub singers, watch Jour de Fete on their television and we know that they and the grandmother inhabit the same world and will get on. The Illusionist shares Belleville Rendezvous’ love of the grotesque, with figures such as the vulture-like chansonniere and the three constantly-somersaulting acrobats drawn with a charicaturist’s distorting eye. But this is a film with a melancholy heart, which observes the fading away of a world and the people who built their lives around it. It is a passing which diminishes the wider world, Chomet and Tati suggest, a loss of innocence which reduces its store of magic.

The central character is Tatischeff the stage magician, or illusionist, a direct portrayal of Tati himself (Tatischeff being his real, non-shortened name) in slightly altered Hulot form. There is no pipe, raincoat or hat, rather a brown suit turning pink for the stage, where he creates a more fanciful reality. All the other gestures are intact, however. Tatishceff comes up against various obstacles to his performance as he travels from place to place in search of bookings. His act is repeated in different settings, but he fails to adapt to circumstances, making the ill-founded assumption that he possesses the audience’s respectful and undivided attention. Not the least of his problems is his well-fed but truculent and evil-tempered rabbit. The times are changing, and Tatischeff’s act is squeezed out at the London variety theatre performance by the rampant ego and limelight hogging antics of Billy Boy and his backing band the Britoons. Billy is a shiny-suited rock n roll contortionist who sends the audience into wild paroxysms and immediately empties the hall after his performance ends, leaving the hapless illusionist to face ranks of deserted seats. Youth is taking over, lacking craft and talent but full of ebullient energy. Tatischeff has to travel ever further to find work. There are journeys across seas and firths, the swells and undulations of wave and water a gift for the animator. These scenes recall the ocean voyage in Belleville Rendezvous, although they are more naturalistically depicted here. They also bring to mind the important part the sea plays in the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki and others. These journeys also allow for the painting of romantic sweeps of landscape, which Tati watches with innocent, wide-eyed awe.

Accepting an invitation from a cheerfully drunken, red-nosed Scotsman, Tatischeff winds his circuitous path to a remote Shetland island. Even here, modernity is making its incursions into the inn where he is supposed to perform. The coming of electricity means the installation of a jukebox, which drowns out even the local bagpiper. Tatischeff’s booking is perhaps meant to mark the island’s connection to the grid, to a world of bright lights and plugged-in entertainment, and he therefore effectively celebrates his own redundancy. The Shetland and Highland settings, with their wild landscapes, windswept seas and turreted castles atop craggy outcrops introduce a fairytale element to the story. This is personalised when we meet Alice, an island girl who serves, scrubs and cleans all day and night in the inn, watching all the while from the background in her drab and worn clothes. She is a local Cinderella and is enchanted by Tatischeff’s magic tricks, which provide small explosions of bright illumination into the everyday drudgery of her life of unquestioned servitude. He becomes her Buttons, her oddball fairy godfather. He buys her a pair of red shoes straight out of Hans Christian Anderson (or Powell and Pressburger). Feeling an attachment to him, and craving more of his magic, she stows away. At the vital moment, he fails to disabuse her of her illusions, reluctantly conjuring a ticket out of nowhere to save her from being accused of fare-dodging on the ferry.

A couple of kooks
This couple of kooks end up, on her suggestion, in Edinburgh, where the bulk of the film unfolds, and where Chomet himself is based. Tati’s script originally took them to Prague, but Edinburgh is a perfect replacement. It is painted in rain blurred watercolours, impressionistic backdrops upon which finely observed detail is overlaid. The trams and buses, signs and adverts, the blades of grass waving in the wind on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, the changing skies, and the menu outside the fish and chip shop, with its preponderance of deep fried foods, all bring the city to vivid life. There is a cheerful inclusion of a variety of Tartan clichés. Alice and Tatischeff are blasted from their lunchtime bench by a busking bagpiper who decides to set up pitch right next to them. We also gain a hint of just how little a Scotsman wears beneath his kilt as the wind billows it up on the ferry crossing to the isles, like a rather less appealing version of the Marilyn over the air vent scene from The Seven Year Itch.

Fairytale Edinburgh
The emotional resonance of the city, with its muted colours and ubiquitous brown stone, its rain and cloudy skies is a perfect expression of the mood of the story and the characters within it. It is a city in which magic, in the form of the castle and the royal mile, Arthur’s Seat looming romantically beyond and the Georgian grandeur of the new town, contrasts with the harsher realities of the dark canyons and precipitous descents, the dilapidated houses and decaying businesses of the old town. It’s a contrast which has been made since Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and which was more recently depicted with poetic intensity in Richard Jobson’s 16 Year of Alcohol (and to more sensationalist effect in Trainspotting). The steepness of the sloping streets and the grey, wet climate add to a feeling of weariness, of a slow trudge from one defeated encounter to another. But it does occasionally offer moments of magic. Alice brings a touch of brightness with her, still being more attuned to this side of life. She remains safe beneath her umbrella of illusions, perpetuated and protected by her magical guardian, who is loathe to dispel them. She is, after all, currently his best and almost sole audience. The boarding house where they stay is filled with other circus and music hall artistes who are down on their luck and struggling to find work. The film, essentially a wistful comedy, flirts with despair in its depiction of some of these characters. There is the suicidally depressed clown, who gets kicked into the gutter by a group of thuggish little urchins who might previously have formed his audience. There is also a ventriloquist who dummy is a miniature replica and extension of his self, through which he is able to find a way of expressing himself to the world. This ends up in the window of a pawnbroker’s shop, steadily decreasing in price until it’s marked ‘for free’. The artist who gave it life, and for whom it brought a sense of purpose and self-worth, lies in an alcoholic stupor in a back alley, his begging bowl empty before him. Alice’s presence signals a brief interlude of solace to these lonely souls, bringing salvation through soup and wafting through the house like a clear, innocent breeze, bringing memories of days full of fresh hope to these end of the road lives.

Cinderella yearning for transformation
A strong link is made between stage illusionism and the hypnotic glamour of consumerism. Alice is enchanted by shop window displays and by the seemingly effortless elegance of the well-off Edinburgh women. She points out her objects of desire to Tatischeff, whom she believes will conjure them into her life. This consumer magic, embodied in fashions and fancy foods, and writ large on billboards and on the side of buses, exerts a stronger fascination that Tatischeff’s old tricks. He plays to listless audiences in a half empty hall. Alice doesn’t see the hard labour which goes into the maintenance of her illusion of an enchanted world in which what she wishes for she gets. He takes a night job at a garage, the cars there a symbol of an increasingly affluent and individualistic society (this was the era in which Macmillan declared many people had ‘never had it so good’) which spurns the buses and trams which trundle past throughout the film. The hints of a harsher world to come, characterised by aggressive marketing and fierce competition, are embedded in the story and also subliminally seeded by the signs for Thatcher’s on the side of a bus (presumably not the West Country cider) and for Blair and Brown’s pawnbroker’s shop. There’s also the rather more obvious (and not exactly subtle) caricature of the vulgar, moneyed Yank who brings his oversized, ostentatious car in for a wash. Tatischeff also swallows his pride and takes a job as a department shop window demonstrator (a moving showroom dummy), making literal the link between consumerism and illusion as he adjusts his act to produce bras and bags and domestic appliances from behind his back, rather than flowers from his sleeve or rabbits out of his hat. The consumer society’s appropriation of the innocent magic and old tricks of the stage world is furthered as Tatischeff joins the acrobats from his boarding house in an unconventional collaboration which uses trapezes rather than scaffolding to paint a huge billboard in double quick time.

Consumer magic
Tatishceff’s posture and mannerisms are a skilfully observed recreation of Tati’s in his films. This is made amusingly clear in a scene in which he stumbles into a cinema and is confronted by his mirror self as Mon Oncle flickers up on the screen. The film is altered so that hovers half way between animation and live action. It looks different enough to distinguish itself from the animated frame in which it is set, without breaking the very atmosphere, of a world represented rather than mimicked, which that animation creates. Tatischeff doesn’t recognise himself, of course. He’s too busy trying to manage the minor chaos which he has caused. This isn’t a film which plays that much with self-reflexivity, although there is a briefly glimpsed poster for Belleville Rendezvous in the lobby. The cinema is another medium which offers illusion and spectacle to a mass audience, with its massed extras, special effects illusionism, close-ups and its projection of a world of light, all of which makes the old stage magic seem dark and dusty and further marginalizes Tatischeff. Tati himself found a home there for a while, a route out of his tours of the music halls and circuses, from stage to screen. Cinema offered him an environment in which, when times were good, he could control every element of the reality which he constructed. Even here, however, Tati’s cinematic imagination hearkened back to older, vanished forms, his films being essentially modern versions of silent comedies. Such a stubbornly traditional values would eventually lead to him becoming as redundant in the modern world as Tatischeff, something which he perhaps anticipates in this script. Tatischeff himself is already far too set in his ways to make such a transition to the film world, which is only open to a persistent and luck few anyway.

Tatischeff’s alert, bird-like posture is an embodiment of halting indecision, always leaning forward, forearms held out at right angles with hands hanging helplessly, as if in readiness for a shrug. In the Hulot films, this is a momentary hesitation, a comical beat before a decisive leap into action (which is often triumphant in its own unconventional way). In the Illusionist, this alert readiness increasingly lapses into defeated exhaustion as the possible courses of action in the world and in his mind narrow. It might be inferred that such a change reflected Tati’s own later disillusionment as the opportunities for work dried up and his work became neglected, were it not for the fact that the script was written at the peak of his popularity, when he was riding high on the success of Mon Oncle. The ever-optimistic Hulot mask begins to slip here. When he notices that Alice has found the white shoes that he has bought for her and left for safekeeping in his dressing room, he slumps in his chair with an air of utter despair. Even the pleasure of producing his magical gifts and seeing the look of delight on her face is denied him, as they are taken increasingly for granted. The price paid for the appearance of effortless illusion is evident in these unguarded backstage moments, whether at theatre or boarding house. Elsewhere the act must be maintained.

City of buses
Ultimately the process of disillusionment works itself out. Just as Cinderella has no more need of magic by the end of Perrault’s tale, so Alice, with the help of her fairy godfather, emerges from her island cocoon to undergo a transformation into a new, confident woman at ease in this bright world of modernity. As she takes her first steps into adulthood and finds romance with a rugged writer, she has no more need of her own Buttons. Tatischeff, drained by the effort, both in terms of time and money, of ushering her towards this moment, loses both of his dependents. He takes his rabbit to the top of Arthur’s Seat, leaving it amongst its wild brethren. This large, lazy and corpulent creature which has always bit the hand that fed it looks lost, standing on its hind legs to watch Tatischeff descend. In releasing his rabbit to enjoy an uncertain freedom he is also abandoning his art, admitting to himself that no-one any longer wants it or him. There is a giddy 360 degree orbit around the rock and the surrounding city which he is preparing to leave, a bravura piece of animation which stands out from the otherwise low key and traditional techniques used in the film. Alice discovers a letter of parting in their room alongside the wilted flowers which she had brought into the room when they first arrived, accompanied by a final gift. This time it’s a direct offering of money, rather than the enticing things which it has served to buy her. It’s a gift which invites her to face the reality of the world. His last message backs it up, telling her ‘there are no magicians’, something which she was beginning to learn for herself anyway. The white shoes which she had been entranced by in the shop window, and which Tatischeff bought for her, were replaced with another identical pair, and her boyfriend was unable to magic the string of pearls which caught her eye from the display case to her neck.

Tatischeff speeds away on the train through the rainy night landscape. An opportunity to perform a trick for a little girl presents itself, as she drops the stub of her pencil which is identical to his new full length one, but he doesn’t pursue it. He has decided that the art of illusion is harmfully deceptive, leading to unreal expectations. His art and craft is not only worthless and outmoded, it is actively dangerous in this changing world. Back in Edinburgh, the lights flicker off on the sign above the music hall theatre, the old world closing down. A small firefly spark spirals off, however, maybe to carry its spirit into the cinema screen, maybe to cast its light into the minds of the audience. The final image before the credits roll is of the photograph which Tatischeff had slotted into the frame of every dressing room mirror in front of which he had confronted himself as he prepared for his act. It is of a small girl, maybe a daughter he has left behind in pursuit of his dream of creating magic. Suddenly all of his impulsive sacrifices he has made on behalf of the naïve and innocent island girl whose path he had by chance crossed make sense.

The Art of Noises

Luigi Russolo

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a fascinating programme on Luigi Russolo and his Art of Noises. The presenter, Robert Worby, travelled to Milan, where an exhibition on Futurism was being staged, and located Russolo’s manifesto for a new music and the sound-producing mechanisms which he fabricated to realise it in the context of this noisome movement. We got to hear a very old recording in which the voice of Futurism’s most voluble proselytiser, Filippo Marinetti, emerged from its clouds of static in the midst of a shrill proclamation. An actor took over to deliver more of his frequent and bullish expressions of contempt for what he considered outmoded forms of art (all of them, essentially) and his grandiose, world-conquering claims for the new movement (his) which would sweep them all away. There is much violent rhetoric about destroying museums, libraries and academies, and about the beauty of speed and the thrill of mechanisation. It’s unlikely that any of the artists who waxed lyrical in such an effusive manner ever actually worked in one of the factories whose sounds and movements they sang hymns of praise over. Clearly a self-confident man, Marinetti every utterance seems to emerged in the form of a manifesto. He comes across a jabbering Mussolini, drunk on the power of his own verbiage. He must have been very tiring company. You can imagine him making an issue out of the most trivial of everyday encounters, creating a drama out of, say, ordering from a menu (we reject utterly the outmoded, dull abomination of the apple crumble, and demand new, astounding combinations of artificially created ice cream flavours). He celebrated the sounds of the pre-World War One battlefields with an enthusiasm that, if he intended it to be taken seriously (and he doesn’t seem to have had a well developed sense of irony), suggests a detachment from real human experience and feeling which bordered on (or perhaps entered fully into) madness. If these loud prattlings didn’t discredit him (and they could at least be ignored) his later enthusiastic embrace of fascism certainly did for future generations. He seemed actively to embrace the mechanisation and desensitisation of the human soul, and serves as a salutary exemplar of the folly which results when artists’ abstract theoretical grandstanding collides with concrete historical reality. In short, be careful what you wish for.

Russolo the artist - Dynamic Automobile
Luigi Russolo was an enthusiastic follower of Futurism, initially as a painter. His Art of Noises manifesto was inspired by hearing the music of Futurist composer Ballila Pratella. Pratella had issued his own manifesto, the Manifesto of Futurist Musicians, in 1910. Russolo’s Art of Noise (which you can find over at Ubuweb here) was framed as a letter of praise to Pratella, a ‘great Futurist musician’, which suggests a rather more modestly proportioned ego than Marinetti’s. He is essentially looking to escape from the limited range of sound which the traditional orchestral instrumentation provided. These, he suggested, in a slightly less excitable tone than Marinetti, but nevertheless with the provocative assertiveness of these endless manifestos, had become stale and worn through overfamiliarity. Certain sounds had become fixedly associated with particular moods and a sense of boredom had begun to fill the concert halls. He was not the only person to be thinking along such lines. As late romantic orchestral music became ever more overripe and swollen, the tremblings of seismic change began to be felt in various locations. Russolo thought, in line with Futurist enthusiasms, that the sounds of the modern, mechanised world suggested new tonal possibilities. ‘We get infinitely more pleasure’ he overstated ‘imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more, for instance, to the heroic or pastoral symphonies’. Drawing a picture of the concert hall as a prison of dull monotony, he bursts through its doors and into the streets where we can ‘walk together through a great modern capital, with the ear more attentive than the eye, and we will vary the pleasures of our sensibilities by distinguishing among the gurglings of water, air and gas inside metallic pipes, the rumblings and rattlings of engines breathing with obvious animal spirits, the rising and falling of pistons, the stridency of mechanical saws, the loud jumping of trolleys on their rails, the snapping of whips, the whipping of flags’.

Russolo does not merely want to replicate these sounds, however, but to order and regulate them, to get at some ideal underlying form. ‘The art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction’, he writes, which tends to refute those who claim him as a precursor to Pierre Schaeffer and the early musique concrete sound collagers. Pietro Verardo, who has built working reconstructions of Russolo’s battery of noise makers, expands on the point. Russolo wanted to recreate the world on the stage, he suggests. He aimed a re-ordering of the world, a careful juxtaposition of the distillated elements of its sounds arranged in such a way that some transformation in its essence, or at the very least in the way we perceive it, would occur. It was a heady conceptual collision of science and the occult which was prevalent in the early years of this new century, in which the rapid and accelerating pace of change was already becoming apparent, and the tectonic plates of old and new worlds ground against each other.


Russolo proposed a taxonomy of new sounds, creating 6 distinct ranks into which they were corralled. These were:
1. Roars, claps, noises of falling water, driving noises, bellows.
2. Whistles, snores, snorts
3. Whispers, mutterings, rustlings, grumbles, grunts, gurgles
4. Shrill sounds, cracks, buzzings, jingles, shuffles
5. Percussive noises using metal, wood, skin, stone, baked earth etc.
6. Amimal and human voices: shouts, moans, screams, laughter, rattling, sobs.
Pietro Verardo likens this division of the sound world into clearly delineated categories to the later development of synthesisers, and thus makes Russolo’s a progenitor of electronic music, a claim often made for him. The sound boxes, or intonarumori which he created were designed to voice some of these noises. None of the originals remain, having been lost either in the chaos of the post First World War period, or during Nazi bombing. They have been reconstructed by Pietro Verardo, however, who recreated them using pictures and patent designs as templates. Robert Worby visits him in his studio to see these fantastic instruments. Their names are descriptive of the sounds which Russolo had divided into his 6 categories. They sound a lot more onomatopoeically satisfying in Italian: Crepitatore, Ulalatore, Gracidatore, Gorgogliatore, Ronzatore. The more bluntly descriptive English equivalents don’t sound quite as magical: buzzers, thunderers, shatterers, snorters etc. Worby gets to try a couple of the intonarumori, sounding the low and high howlers. Their sound is, as he describes it, ‘very musical’. The intonarumori are large boxes with wheels inside which turn and create friction against strings, producing long held tones. The vibrations are transferred to drum skins which are amplified through large horns, which emerge from the front of the boxes like great conical beaks (or big hooters). Pietro Verardo suggests that Russolo may have been partly inspired to create these devices by Leonardo Da Vinci’s plans for musical machines. He had worked on the restoration of the Last Supper some time before, and was likely to have been familiar with Da Vinci’s work, which was considered acceptable Futurist fare, presumably because of his unrealised mechanical inventions. The intonarumori are fascinating objects in themselves, bridging the worlds of sound and visual art in a fashion similar to that displayed by the self-built musical instruments of Harry Partch or the kinetic sculptures of Max Eastley, sounded by (or giving sound to) the natural elements.

Russolo with intonarumori
Russolo gave a concert of his pieces for the intonarumori at the Teatro da Verme in Milan on 22nd April 1914, with the predictably riotous reaction which seemed to greet any attempt to break with tradition in this era. Stravinsky and Diaghilev seemed more appreciative at a later salon demonstration given at Marinetti’s house in 1915. After this initial rocky performance, he took his instruments on a tour of European concert halls, which included an appearance at the London Colosseum in June 1914. There’s an extract of an interview on the programme with someone who was there, and who recollects being less than impressed. The same could be said of the local press reaction. Primed by the belligerent tone of the Futurist manifestos and the forceful names given to the instruments to expect something perhaps literally explosive, they expressed disappointment at the relatively muted sounds which the intonarumori produced. The use of the word noise and the celebration of the sounds of the mechanised city lead you to expect a clangorous concatenation of percussion punctuated by sirens and bells and blaring horns. The sort of thing which Edgar Varese would produce in pieces such as Ionisation and Ameriques. These sounds were more akin to haunted moans and sighs, sounds from some unearthly and airless city. Some were like a vacuum cleaner, and anticipated the pranksterish use of such sounds in the 60s work of Fluxus ‘composers’. Herrmann, the composer who is the central character amongst a group of young people seeking new ways to create art and distance themselves from their past in Edgar Reitz’ series of films Die Zweite Heimat, stages a concert of his piece for vacuum cleaners and other domestic appliances. Herrmann comes to Munich in the 60s from a rural village in the Hunsruck area of Germany, close to the Rhine and steeped in the world of Wagner and folk memory. It is a world from which he wishes to distance himself, and this embracing of the sounds of the city is one way of doing so. Other noises in Russolo’s palette (and you can hear sound clips over at Ubuweb here) sound like pneumatic drills operating underwater, the slow breathing of a sleeping giant, arctic winds heard from within a sealed shelter, the ratcheting of malfunctioning machinery and the scraping of metal on wire strings. Such a sound would be electronically transformed by the Radiophonic Workshop years later into the echoing wheeze of the dematerialising Tardis.

Russolo left very little trace of his work behind, outside of his Art of Noise manifesto. The instruments were lost or destroyed and of his scores, only 7 bars of the piece Awakening of the City remain. We get to hear Daniel Lombardi’s 1978 recreation of this small fragment, which gives a teasing glimpse at what has been lost. There’s also a recording, half-buried in the crackly patina of time, of Russolo’s brother Antonio’s composition Corale from 1921, which uses the intonarumori to back more conventional orchestral forces. The elusiveness of Russolo’s legacy, its physical absence, has left a spectral template which the imagination can fill in and expand upon. David Toop notes the way in which the Art of Noise manifesto has retrospectively been adopted as a legitimising progenitor for all manner of musics, its intentions being adapted and reshaped in the process. History is, if not rewritten, then rechannelled along different courses. DJ Spooky cites contemporary artists such as Merzbow, Kode-9 and Nobukazu Takemura as being at the head of such streams, but these are notional lineages at best. You could also point to the use of the industrial sounds of concrete mixers and pneumatic drills by the likes of Faust and Einsturzende Neubaten, or the concrete electronic passages of Varese’s Deserts, which use the sounds of a factory, or Satie’s use of typewriter and gunshot in Parade, all of which bear the stamp of Futurist ideas to some extent. But these ignore the transformative element of Russolo’s ideas, the ordering and categorisation of ideal rather than actual sounds. A piece such as Stockhausen’s 1958 electronic work Kontakte (for the recording of which he constructed a revolving speaker box which looked like a mutated descendant of one of Russolo’s intonarumori) might provide a closer comparison, its juxtaposition of metallic and molten, hot and cold sounds. But perhaps Russolo’s music really remains singular, whether in ideal or realised form, indivisible from the dawning of the turbulent twentieth century, emergent at a fevered time when it seemed that some form of alchemical transformation could be realised through art, and the nature of the world forever changed.