|_September 2005 _|
And Now For Something A Little Bit Different...
The DVD release of Bodysong by British Simon Pummell marks another infrequent attempt by a director to create a film with an exclusively symbiotic relationship between images and original score - a sometimes tough concept to digest for mainstream audiences. Lacking a formal dramatic narrative with name actors and dialogue, efforts by filmmakers such as Godfrey Reggio use sound and image to make a grand statement on topics like the human condition. Through the eyes of Reggio and his sublime cinematographers, the specific theme of Koyaanisqatsi is 'life out of balance' - and the film propels it through a series of interconnected montages, or mobiles, that exploit imbalances on human and planetary scales. Backed by a surging score from Philip Glass, Reggio's film is arguably the most successful, if not most recognized example of the experimental/documentary film genre. Efforts that followed in the wake of Koyaanisqatsi are Reggio's other Glass-scored installments - Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi - and cinematography Ron Fricke's own directorial efforts, Chronos, and Baraka (both scored by Michael Stearns).
Pummell's research and production team for Bodysong raided various film archives, and managed to winnow footage of people from various cultures - sometimes going as far back as the silent era - into sixteen categories that include Conception, The Womb, Birth, Growth, Play, Teenage, Sex, Violence Into War, Disease and Death. Pummell also managed to engage Jonny Greenwood from the band Radiohead as composer, and the two collaborated, much like Reggio and Glass, on fusing the original score and the film's visual mobiles into a flawless impressionistic work on the human creature.
Greenwood's superb score has two major motifs: the first combines a series of melancholic, undulating chords performed by an intimate string quartet and solo piano that are later accompanied by neo-natal synth chords, subtly processed sound effects, and light metallic tinkling; the second motif has solo string passages performing sad, sometimes wistful material, which at their most powerful underscore the tears and laughter of mothers in the Conception-Womb-Birth mobiles, culminating with mums hold their infants for the first time.
Just as effective is a propulsive bass line (heavily resonating as a many women await the birth of their children), or a loose jazz beat underscoring adolescents at play. Pummell's scope is international (capturing snapshots from every culture), timeless (going back several generations), and periodically provocative - as in a beat up black and white film, where a pair of toddlers strolling in a small garden are seen carrying Nazi flags.
The teen years are underscored with a richly miked acoustic bass, processed percussion, and a deliberately facile electric guitar, which Greenwood uses to mimic the unrefined, impulsive nature of the mobile's subjects. Later segments - such as the occasionally graphic Sex - use a small jazz combo with digital effects - and during the recording sessions, Greenwood encouraged the musicians to stay within the free-jazz domain.
Greenwood himself contributes to the DVD commentary track, and though joined by director Pummell, their comments are highly sporadic, and should have been indexed for easy advances when the discussions abruptly end. The two artists, joined by a moderator, otherwise discuss their collaboration in modest detail, and from Greenwood's comments on creating his potent score, his spot-on instincts as a film composer should make him a worthy contender for future film projects.
Bodysong is an unforgettable because it's about our odd little society; the rules of the animal and insect kingdoms are cold, and logically oriented towards the preservation of each species, but when footage of humans kissing, dancing, shooting, immolating, drinking, boffing, and eating are grouped into these behaviour mobiles, we comes off as a pretty ridiculous creature. Greenwood and Pummell deliberately juxtapose footage with blendered music idioms, using elements from classical, jazz, rock, and experimental, rendering Bodysong into a film that stays in the mind long after the first viewing.
Bill Morrison's Decasia - available from Plexifilm on DVD - is initially a more intriguing work, but its experimental nature, maintained to just under 70 minutes, becomes a problem for less patient viewers. A brilliant concept, Morrison's own archival search focused on acquiring decomposing feature and amateur film footage, often found in wet basements, or long forgotten in archives and film vaults.
Decasia can be approached from several angles: as a statement on the finite nature of film stock; on the fading visual history of passing generations; the struggle between the past, and corrupting nature of the advancing future; and the new images that are created over time, as organic life conquers the frozen snapshots within each frame. Decasia was originally performed live in 2001, with Michael Gordon's score "serving the film," and while the director views the DVD as a reversal of that relationship, Decasia is also what happens when "film dies." Both director Morrison and composer Gordon appear in an informative seven-minute audio interview, originally broadcast on the show Studio 360, and archived as the DVD's singular extra.
Gordon describes his score as music reflective of ongoing decay, and he starts the film with the scraping of rusting automobile brake drums. The slow erosion of rust evokes the corresponding visual decay that, at its most intriguing, become ornate blots of circular mould obliterating the faces of subjects; or water damage that warp images of men and women, morphing their physiques and hand motions into carnival mirror contortions. There's admittedly great beauty in the visual and aural textures, but, lacking thematic development beyond decay, the director and composer's statements become unnecessarily cyclical.
Director Morrison has attempted to create thematic groups - Creation, Civilization, Conundrum, Disintegration and Rebirth - but these efforts and the images related to these subjects have ironically been obfuscated by the decaying film, and the minimalist film score. Variation in footage - slowed down for added detail, but left untreated in all its rotting glory - does exist in Decasia, and includes found scraps of old B-movies, amateur travelogues, home movies, documentaries, and industrial glimpses of men at work. Morrison also uses a spinning Sufi dancer to bracket the beginning-middle-end sections, but the symbolic footage becomes anti-climactic when decayed snippets of the dancer also appear in other thematic chapters.
Gordon's score is no different, because, like the film's limited scope, the score focuses solely on decay. Though he chose to stay within the perceived limitations of minimalism, Philip Glass discovered small corners that could themselves - through varying tempi, instrumentation, and vocalists - convey significant variation, and offer occasional melodic breaks. Because Decasia is apparently about the 'death of film,' Gordon's creative decisions are to remain with that scope. The result is a feature-length score that is bold in its experimentation, but hampered by its sometimes brutal use of dissonance in place of any broad variation. Gordon's ability to mimic high-pitched screeches and metallic cacophany with a full orchestra is hypnotic, but by the film's second half, the score becomes quite oppressive. A shorter film from Morrison would have been equally successful, but then the nature of any experimental work is to provoke sometimes defensive thoughts and strong emotions. Decasia is marvelously hypnotic -call it a low-key somersault into a bottomless pit of despair - but its technique is absolutely merciless.
Technically experimental, but aimed at mass audiences, The Mystery of Picasso was released in 1956 and pretty much remained a film of legend until its re-release, decades later, in 1984. Formed out of the friendship between Pablo Picasso and French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, Mystery is a one-of-a-kind work that has Picasso drawing and painting with inks that bleed through the paper canvas - fully captured on 35mm film. The movie's final 20 minutes pop into CinemaScope - much in the way Brainstorm flipped to Panavision during the trippy episodes - but the use of 'scope is hardly a gimmick in Mystery; the real point is a refreshing shift in canvas size. Distributed by Image on DVD, Milestone presents the film as full frame, until the 'scope ratio is letterboxed for the final reels.
Considered a national treasure by the French government, Mystery is a rare attempt to capture the artist's inspiration in one cinematic flow, as Picasso draws and paints multiple works in 75 minutes. The DVD's first commentary track has Peggy Parsons from the National Gallery of Art ably tracing the film's history, Picasso's relationships with people, and the key figures in his art at the time. (A second track by painter, and Columbia Arts University professor Archie Rand, provides a compact art history lesson.)
Parson quotes French critic André Bazin as saying of Mystery, "The film is good because it does not explain anything." Parsons elaborates that Picasso never declares his works complete because each drawing and painting evolve on film: from sparse, geometric figures to a densely clustered portrait; or a fish that becomes a rooster and then a mask, Picasso's work is meant to be ephemeral; living only on film, and keeping the audience guessing until the artists pull his brush away.
Clouzot's goal was to show the thought patterns of an artist; his spontaneity, the small mistakes, and the sudden decision to add colours and smother imperfect areas or reinventing a character. The role of the score, therefore, becomes an even more intriguing one.
Also a friend of Picasso, composer Georges Auric was on set during filming, but didn't begin to score the film until months later. Historian Peggy Parsons doesn't indicate whether Auric shaped his material as the film was being edited or whether the music went through great discussions with the director, but the act of composing a score could be seen as going against the very purpose of Clouzot's spontaneous approach. Of course, Clouzot had also filmed retakes, and his editing condenses the act of painting and drawing to quick strokes, or a series of jump cuts; so the concept of capturing pure spontaneity is out the window.
The challenge for Auric was to write music that didn't telegraph to audiences the conclusion of each work. How does one employ crescendi without affecting Picasso's mercurial playfulness; from when he creates a distinctively light mood, and then heads for something more somber, before putting away his brush? And by employing Spanish rhythms during the first bars of a cue, does the composer ruin the painter's surprise, as four painted strokes become a matador caught in the horns of an angry toro?
In the case of the latter example, Auric's dilemma is actually nonexistent, because that particular painting (plus a second work) use Spanish folk music, with wonderfully coarse vocals. "Death in the Bull Ring," an earlier painting of the man-beast combat, is underscored with solo Spanish guitar - which again can be argued as telegraphing the very nature of the portrait, or as a more intimate comment on the relationship between man and bull. From a distance the painted relationship is full of admiration, primal aggression and macho posturing, but when the two forces physically interact, blood inevitably stains the ground as the two combatants literally collide.
Throughout his score, Auric also plays with musical genres, like a jazzy drumbeat for a modernistic drawing that evolves from geometric shapes to faces and whole peoples. The follow-up drawing is also underscored with drum, plus a muted trumpet, using the same energy level.
Another drawing - of several women and a leering man - begins as a playful, orchestral arrangement of Arabian exotica, and subsequently flips to an imperial-flavoured proclamation from the horns, then leaping after a pause to a jaunty classical passage. A painting of a goat's head is enhanced by whirlwind strings and sharp brass jabs, following Picasso as he adds large colour strokes, and finer details to the animal's head, surrounding landscape, and the sky. Painted over many hours, the edited segments run average between 2-4 minutes, with Auric's score often receding near the end to give room for one of several brief exchanges between the film's off-screen director and artist, or to allow the audience to absorb the 'finished' art for a few beats, before Picasso begins anew.
Parsons describes Auric's music as a bit heavy-handed - a sometimes suitable view - but she also explains that it's a fashionable underscore for the period, and one to which viewers will eventually warm up.
Clouzot's forte as a filmmaker lay in creating suspense - think of the nail-biting finale in Les Diaboliques, or the grimness in Wages of Fear - and while suspense is certainly one of the emotions audiences are meant to feel while Picasso works, the director also recognized the need to lighten the mood - and break up the painting segments - with short live-action vignettes: of Picasso painting in person, and of completing a colour painting while the film magazine runs perilously low.
Auric largely avoided writing formal melodies, and one does warm up to his score after the first few paintings. At times experimental in nature, sometimes formed of stripped-down jazz performances, or impressionistic, Spanish-flavoured material, the score swims between inspirational bursts of calmness, anger, frenzy, laughter, and fury.
Instrumentation also plays a key role, such as prominent woodwinds - oddly skirting the parameters of satirical dirge - that underscore a short vignette of onions on a kitchen table; and for a horse rider and her onlookers, Auric uses woodwinds and a frenetic piano to bridge heavy orchestral outbursts, evoking a pitched musical tribute to a circus performer, surrounded by a packed audience, enjoying favourable salutes and cheers.
When the film expands to the CinemaScope ratio of 2.35:1, Picasso creates a flurry of short works - a sketched and later abstract reclining woman, paper collages, a doomed matador - and concludes the film with a spectacular work that starts with a series of geometric patterns, and evolves into a beachfront resort. It's the longest-filmed painting, and Auric gets an opening 4 minutes to create a larger cue with full orchestra, minus a break near the end, when Picasso switches from ink to paper cutouts. As the artist becomes dissatisfied with his additions, Auric holds back the score, and after a brief director-painter exchange, Picasso erases his "mistakes," and Auric concludes the film's final segments with climactic statements, signaling not only the end of the film, but the end of an inimitable cinematic experience.
Of the three reviewed films, only the scores for Decasia and Bodysong have been released on CD, via Cantaloupe Records and Capitol Records, respectively. Unique to Bodysong is a website (http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/B/bodysong/intro.html ) that allows visitors to access the histories and minor stories of each film clip, with alternate versions of Jonny Greenwood's score playing in the background.
Mark R. Hasan (2005)
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