phile under: TBA 2010

TBA 2010: Atlas/Basinski vs Reeves/Sverrisson

Culturephile compare-contrasts two non-narrative film-music collabs.

By Anne Adams September 14, 2010

Atlas/Basinsky film bares almost all.
(Photo courtesy of PICA.)

Image: PICA

They say lighting doesn’t strike in the same place twice. But on Friday, and again on Monday, two layered, strobing, hyperstimulating art films lit up The Works–and resonated with stirring soundscapes by modern maestros.

Friday’s film, an untitled live video mix by venerated filmmaker Charles Atlas, was accompanied by experimental-trance demigod William Basinski. Monday’s epic,When It Was Blue, was created collaboratively between director Jennifer Reeves (Sundance, Princeton, MOMA) and Skuli Sverrisson (Lou Reed, Blonde Redhead).

Both pieces layered textural stills, over clips of live footage—and in both, the overlaying textures were so fast-changing, they created a film-strip-style flickering effect. In A/B, many of these foreground textures were speckles, and some were digitized fractal patterns (think screensaver). In R/S, however, the textural elements had a more naturalist feel. Many featured multicolor plashes of watercolor paint, some, the parched craquelure of dry soil. To say that one was naturalist, and the other modern, would be broadly appropos.

Both pieces interspersed black-and-white footage, with color, though Blue seemed to cover more of the spectrum, with some sections as resplendent with rainbow hue, as the paintings of Pavel Tchelitchew.

Several seeming themes emerged in A/B: Beauty. Alienation. Torture. Control. Impending doom. Manifested doom. An interlude of brotherhood, the self, humanistic triumph—followed by more doom. Black-and-white film heriones with electrodes hooked to their heads, the iris of an enormous eye, and much later, the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb—each took center-screen. The sheer volume and intensity of images, stimulated this watcher to the point of universal numbness. Buddhist enlightenment, or sociopathic detachment? Hard to say. But that mushroom cloud seemed light-years away.

In contrast, by the end of R/S, I was irrepressibly weeping. Maybe after all the footage of brooks and rivers and oceans, my ducts simply succumbed to suggestion. But I remember being gripped by an inarticulate, sentimental, transcendent sort of grief. “Ocean big,” I thought. “Green and deep and sad.”
“Seals swim so smooth, make me cry,” thought eye.

Musical Maneuvers (In The Dark)
Both musicians tethered their explorations to long, low, ambient synth strains, and both scores wafted ephemerally alongside their respective films. But in A/B, Basinski’s musical compositions seemed strictly ex machina—-emanating from a laptop he’d brought on stage. Meanwhile in R/S, Sverrisson played live guitar as the rest of the prearranged score piped in via the PA.

Please Note: If I got this wrong, I’m not surprised. Both musicians sat in dim light, while the audience squinted and strained to see what gear they were using. Sverrisson had a dappled lighting effect, so it seemed like he was amidst trees.

While Basinski kept his music—albeit varied—flowing throughout, an uncanny twist to Sverrisson’s performance, was that he (and all music) sometimes stopped as the footage continued to play, with its own ambient bird-calls and water-whooshes. Conversely, there was a long period when the film went black and silent, and Sverrisson continued to play in darkness ’til it resumed. The remarkable thing was—it took a while to notice these changes. Like a master magician, Sverrisson marshalled audience attention wherever he wanted it to go.

Sense of Humor
A/B: A reclining Daffy Duck, and later a rotating Mariah Carey, could not possibly be taken without a chuckle.
R/S: None. Inasmuch as it’s possible, this film was a totally introverted, asocial experience. The closest the piece came, to a joke, was a brief flash of educational animation, with expanding concentric circles referencing an earthquake’s epicenter. But humor would have seemed particularly pointless, in such a stunning profusion of nature. Jackdaws don’t need jokes, to cackle.

Readers, did you watch these two perfect storms? What did you take away?

For more information on TBA events, visit PICA. A more comprehensive list of upcoming events can be found at our Arts & Entertainment Calendar.

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