October 28, 2010 § Leave a Comment
In “The Sanctuary,” Nate Neal traces back the history of manipulation, power battles and betrayal to a single cave, thousands of years ago.
The story unfolds entirely in a Paleolithic language Neal created, rendering the action subtle as a tribe careens toward possible chaos amidst the battles contained.
At the center of the story is the cave painter, who lives on the fringes of the tribe. He spends his day adorning his section of the cave with drawings that are dismissed as piffle by his fellow cavemen but are soon revealed as a political and social history of the group.
At the moment when these beings are making the move from animal to human, there are two mandatory qualifications that will help them bridge that divide — history and perspective. No longer are they wild children enacting their momentary rages — they are becoming creatures of thought and memory, and the cave painter is the spark that begins to light the fire through the tribe.
The moment of real transformation begins with the arrival of a nomad girl, dumped with the tribe in a trade for furs and left to make her own way traversing her new family. The cave painter is kept alive largely due to the clandestine charity of the current leader of the group, and the nomad girl takes note.
At first, she reacts to the cave painter as a weirdo, just like any of the tribe has, but soon she begins to see the waves of power within the tribe, and she and the cave painter unite to recognize and change what little history exists.
Neal’s tale unfolds with an immediacy that is balanced with a delicate touch, so much so that it will take a couple readings to really grasp the interaction of the players and the drama as it moves along. Caveman language means no extrapolation of plot.
When you’re dealing with the archetypes of normalcy, however, long explanations might do more damage than good. In the dynamics that Neal presents, you can see your country, your town, your work place and your family, all rolled into one cautionary tale.
In stark black and white, Neal’s art exhibits much sophistication, while still maintaining a required roughness, given the time period and level of civilization he’s portraying. These are disheveled, rough players, and Neal’s art imbues them with those qualities even as it also reveals depth and emotion in our most simplest of ancestors.
“The Sanctuary” is also a story of the power of art — and even performance. It’s a testament to how we take in information — and how we ignore it, depending on our personal circumstances. It’s a meditation on the fact that sometimes the subtle doesn’t work with mobs, and that’s why bombast and cheap emotions will often move people to action.
Neal’s book digs deep down to the core of our humanity that almost requires manipulation for movement, but suggests that sometimes there are victories for us even if we do require a shifty style of prodding
October 28, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Sometimes inspiration just drops in your lap, but artist Michael Oatman claims something even better: His presentation at Mass MoCA is a homemade space ship that actually dropped from the sky, right on top of the museum. All Oatman had to do was approach it as an archaeologist.
His presentation “All Utopias Fell,” will finally be open to the public on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m.
The installation — which more properly might be termed an exhibit — consists of an old Airstream trailer outfitted for orbit around the Earth. Oatman claims it is the creation of a fellow named Donald Carusi, a figure of some fascination for the artist.
Oatman said he couldn’t believe his luck when Carusi’s makeshift spacecraft — supposedly launched from the top of Mount Greylock in the late 1970s — landed on the roof of Mass MoCA Building 5 (the main gallery building) following its descent back to Earth.
In fact, the craft returned home: According to Oatman, Carusi was a former employee of Sprague Electric Co. and the subject of some earlier work at Building 5. It was also fortuitous for Oatman that the trailer landed right next to another major work of his — the solar panels on top of the building. He designed the layout for the panels as part of a word puzzle that he created and that currently remains unsolved.
“The ship just landed where it landed, amazingly, on scaffolds, with parachutes draped on the nearby buildings,” Oatman said. “After it landed, we decided that we wanted to bring people out to it, so there’s a catwalk that extends out through a new hole in the power plant. It’s obviously new construction. It’s like going to see Ausable Chasm, or in a grander way some archaeological dig where it’s pretty clear the scaffolding is new and has the safety handrail and is visually different from the artifact.”
The facts about Donald Carusi can’t actually be confirmed, and Oatman hasn’t been forthcoming with any hard evidence — in his eyes, the trailer is enough proof. This has already been a bone of contention between Oatman and some art lovers who have visited the museum with certain expectations of seeing genuine articles — or who at least don’t think of artists as confidence men.
Oatman has even been accused of total fabrication — something that makes him indignant and more apt to retreat than to argue the fine points of his research into the history of Carusi and his homemade spacecraft.
He said he first became aware of Carusi when, several years ago, he discovered strange experimental contraptions that were hidden and forgotten on the Mass MoCA campus. They were put on display as “The Mystery in Building 5″ in the museum lobby, but that just led to trouble for the artist.
“One day, I was working in the lobby repairing something,” Oatman said, “and one of the people at the desk directed this angry guy over to me, and he said, ‘All of this is fake! You’re making this up.’ I said, ‘You know, nobody stands in front of a Mark Rothko [famed abstract expressionist painter best known for his exploration of myths] and says that this isn’t true.’”
Perhaps Oatman has some sort of telekinetic connection with Carusi’s consciousness, wherever it exists now: He found that many of his ideas and obsessions leading up to his involvement with the homemade space ship were shared with what he discovered to be Carusi’s own indulgences. A drive through Nevada saw Oatman become fascinated with an Airstream trailer he saw parked in the desert.
“The Airstream trailer was the space program before the space program existed,” Oatman said. “It’s sort of Jules Vernian. NASA used Airstream trailers to quarantine Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts — they were worried about space germs.”
All that set his mind on fire — almost literally, since he then became obsessed with finding sun imagery in popular culture. It turns out Carusi also did that in his lead-up to his space launch and used it as the primary motif for decor within the spacebound Airstream.
“This was a guy who was obsessed with the sun,” Oatman said. “It looks like he projected himself into space in order to be near the object of his affection, so there’s all of this sun iconography. It’s a fetish — a collection of images and objects. There’s some vague scientific inquiry that’s going on, but it’s pretty much Home Depot science — or Aubuchon Hardware science, depending on how far back you go.”
Oatman said he first entered the trailer after its miraculous landing with the same wonder and trepidation of someone discovering King Tut’s tomb and understanding that the only thing they could expect is the lack of surety: What will you be greeted by when entering such a tomb (or Airstream trailer)? The idea hit home as Oatman began to transplant the questions to his own life.
“It made me think about what you would take if you were going away forever. The Egyptians thought about this,” he said. “The stuff that this guy takes with him as he not only projects himself out into space, then, in theory — if he’s not really coming back down with it — I guess he projected himself into the afterlife.”
Oatman began to piece together who Donald Carusi was as a person by the items inside the Airstream trailer, using a similar process that visitors to the exhibit will use to uncover the same. Contained within are the local astronaut’s food supply — canned, stewed tomatoes — as well as a 700-volume scientific library, his record collection, artifacts from his ham radio operating days, an exercise bike for keeping up muscle mass and bone strength, unusual electronics for experiments, a modest bed, tools and plenty of personal objects that operate as a window to his persona.
“It’s a home … and it’s a home without another soul in it,” Oatman said. “It is this willing isolation that gets him out there and into the heavens. His own name is branded onto the parachutes. Clearly he’s a fan of NASA and things that would be appealing to a hippie engineer in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Oatman traces his fascination with Carusi back to his own family. His grandfather repaired clocks and was left with many that were unclaimed and that crowded his house for the rest of his life, creating a mechanical, ticking ambiance that Oatman grew up with.
His father and mother were avid do-it-yourselfers. Oatman’s dad built the family house and many others, and his mother was a home economics teacher who canned food and made the family clothes. Carusi’s endeavor fit perfectly into Oatman’s affection for the hobbyist lifestyle long since past, when guys would tinker in their work sheds and listen to short wave radio into the night.
“My fascination with every kind of hobbyist and every person who works on their home is that they are making it what they want it to be, like they’re controlling it somehow,” Oatman said. “Some of us are too tempted with the ease in which consumerism offers off-the-shelf, instant culture-making and identity-making, and there are all these other people who work to hack and customize it. They wouldn’t call themselves artists, but I really admire it because it is about making a world.”
What Oatman hopes to do in the presentation of Carusi’s trailer is to build the story of the man’s life strongly within the viewers’ minds, to the point where they parse out the information and connect some of the dots through their own observation and intuition. The pieces of the man are there for anyone who cares to look.
Oatman points out that the evidence may not tell the ultimate truth about Carusi or even Oatman’s own truth, but rather that of the viewer, who understands that corrupted data is not indistinguishable from unusable data.
“This is a project of mine where there is a lot of unreliable data being presented,” Oatman acknowledged. “Its roots and meanings are a little bit lost to the period between 1978 , when the craft launched, to 2010 when it came down. All we know is that there’s this world, this hermitage, that arrived, and there’s nobody in it, just traces of him.”
At root, the trailer of Donald Carusi is the narrative of Donald Carusi: The pieces he chose to take into space with him are the parts he must have felt told his own story in some fractured communication. Oatman says his role in Carusi’s legacy has been to ensure that the story gets told, and that the objects found within the trailer function as the visual narrative for a story words could never capture in the same way.
“I’ve always looked at my process as writing a novel or making a film, but I’m using materials instead of words to do that,” he said.
He acknowledged this project might blur the perspective of what an artist actually does: Is Carusi’s trailer a ‘found object’ presented without commentary, or has Oatman imbued it with his own orchestration to get out of it the story he wants told?
He is hesitant to clarify, but that may well be the point — and the extra layer in the story being told. The trailer of Donald Carusi and Michael Oatman’s involvement in it might well be more than just the story of two guys separated by decades. It might be the story of all of us — how we perceive information being given to us and how we process that data once we accept it as legitimate to us.
“I like to think that I uncovered this history and dug deeper and am now presenting his efforts,” Oatman said. “Maybe I’m just trying to recreate the experience of this guy from this time period. I’m an artist making artwork, but part of that artwork is a story. And it’s not explicitly told, by any stretch of the imagination. There aren’t any labels here. There’s evidence of his life, and there are the things that he surrounded himself with and the equipment — and then there’s all this video on the ship. It’s transmissions and memories and glitches.”
October 28, 2010 § Leave a Comment
As modern science continually reveals, the universe is filled with things that we can’t see but that shape our perceptions despite their invisibility.
Artist Federico Diaz is working to translate the intangible into terms our human senses can not only understand, but also touch, with his new sculpture, “Geometric Death Frequency — 141,” which opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Oct. 23.
Diaz, a Spanish speaker who is limited in his English, has fashioned his sculpture from 420,000 black balls, created by robots and affixed into components. He designed the specifications for the balls himself after weighing several possibilities.
“The first idea was to use the Ping-Pong ball, but it’s too small and has occasional danger of fire,” he said. “It’s not good material. You can imagine somebody dropping a cigarette, and suddenly it’s all over Mass MoCA.”
Jutting out of the main gallery building, Diaz’s work is a three-dimensional representation of the information contained within its own structure.
Each existence is made up of data — in human beings that would be DNA — and by reproduction, we pass that data to each other. Inanimate objects are creations of data as well, and Diaz has analyzed that raw essence in order to represent it in the tangible world.
It’s a tactic he has employed in earlier works, taking principles of science and giving them a physical form that the human eye would not perceive naturally. In the past, he has taken on such projects as representing the curvature of space and time by melding sculpture with computer animation, giving his audience a view of something usually imperceptible.
The process began with a digital photo of the entrance to Mass MoCA that Diaz used computer software to analyze in order to create the wave forms that would become the sculpture in front of the museum.
“The beginning is in the flat photo — the photo is a facade of the space of this museum,” Diaz said. “The analysis is pixel points, and every point has light, white and black, and we analyze these lights, and through RealFlow software, we make the photo with whiter points going up and black points going down.”
Diaz used an earlier version of the sculpture to visualize the eventual outcome — his first digital sketch was done two and a half years ago. The 3-D model was a more streamlined, wave-like composition, created through similar software, but it had no technical connection with the photo he would use for the final work.
“It’s like … without the genetic code,” he said.
The black balls he eventually used stand in for points of light, becoming three-dimensional pixels stretching out into the Mass MoCA courtyard. The balls were manufactured by KUKA robots, the classic automated arms used by manufacturers including Kawasaki and Mitsubishi. Diaz chose them because they utilize open-source software that he could configure to his own needs.
The construction of the balls took three months of robot-arm labor — one ball assembled every 30 seconds. Technology is embraced in many of the steps to creating the work, and yet Diaz doesn’t want that to be the point.
“I like technology, but I don’t want to present technology as what is important as the aesthetic view and the philosophy,” he said. “I use new technology, but I don’t want it present.”
The outcome is what is known as a “voxel,” a structure that consists of three-dimensional pixels. Each ball in Diaz’s sculpture functions as a pixel on a computer screen might, but moves past the two-dimensions of its screen version and out into the world of the computer user.
Diaz takes this to a more direct stage, where the three-dimensional is made two-dimensional, digitally, put into the language of the digital and then transformed back into the analog world.
His piece takes the information that is unknowable to the naked eye and expands it out to be seen. He likens it to a translation, but a multi-faceted one. Think of language exercises in which a phrase is translated from one language to another to another, and then translated back to the original language. The outcome is related, but it is also representational of the differences in lingual idioms and structures.
Diaz also points out that humans perceive the world not simply through their eyes, but through their eyes as the conduit for reflected light on matter to be transferred to the brain for processing. We don’t even really see the actual thing we are looking at, but rather the thing as represented through optics. Diaz is trying to bypass that process altogether for your eye and brain.
“This is a photograph, but you don’t see anything,” he said. “It’s like your observation of the world is through your mind — your memory — and this is like similar process of observation.”
He recognizes that, upon presentation, the work might appear obscure to the uninformed, but that doesn’t worry him. He says he uses science conceptually but prefers to keep it hidden — and prefers not to explain his sculptures to the viewers, rather to let their minds unfold. He will provide a video of the manufacturing end of the sculpture, which might help to pry out some clues for visitors who want to know more, but the one suggestion Diaz makes about absorbing the piece is to keep an open mind — something he’s seen in action first hand as the work is being constructed.
“Small kids were going around yesterday asking, “What is this?” and “How is this made?”’ he said. “I think if you have a clean brain like a baby, you understand.”
October 28, 2010 § Leave a Comment
As Christine O’Donnell’s senatorial campaign has shown, it’s always a merry, scoffing field day for Democrats and other liberals when an easy target the Christian right decides to toss out an ignorance bomb in regard to science — specifically evolution.
O’Donnell deserves our ridicule for her ignorance, but so does one of her most consistent critics, The Huffington Post, a severe embarrassment to the left.
The Huffington Post — or HuffPo, as it is called — has had its own problems with strained credibility in science reporting. Like O’Donnell, HuffPo has ignited outrage from the scientific community with its ignorant insistence on spreading misinformation.
HuffPo was as one of the leading media outlets behind the MMR madness — the unsubstantiated hysteria that autism is caused by mercury in vaccines. It continues long after the theory has been discredited, and the British doctor who pushed it was stripped of his license to practice, and the journal that published the original paper print a retraction.
That doesn’t mean HuffPo has pulled the plug on conspiracy theorists like Jenny McCarthy, who claims autism can be healed holistically, or uninformed vaccine opponents like Jim Carrey and Bill Maher.
That Maher is considered a major voice for the secular left is an embarrassment beyond his involvement with HuffPo. At one point he advocated skipping flu shots, claiming they cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Robert Kennedy has tumbled into the nadir of his advocacy career by joining the MMR conspiracy madness on HuffPo. The main instigator of the website’s coverage has been David Kirby, a journalist who made the issue his crusade — and a source of his income.
In related, paranoid debacles, the website has printed articles claiming that antibiotics cause fungal infections that cause cancer, that homeopathy will save us from a flu pandemic, that skin cancer is a made-up medical conspiracy to make profits and that colon cleansing is mandatory for getting non-existent toxins out of your body.
Recently the website ran an article that intentionally misrepresented one woman’s cancer treatments in order to bolster holistic alternative therapies.
The article claimed that breast cancer survivor Hollie Quinn chose a holistic cure in favor of the tradition ones. A look at her book on the subject reveals that while she is trying to sell her story as a miracle of holistic medicine, Quinn actually had surgery to remove the tumors before deciding to not follow through with chemo or radiation.
HuffPo preferred to suppress those facts and advocated women just skip medical treatments for breast cancer– and it distastefully did so as part of the lead up to Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
When HuffPo isn’t endangering the public health, it’s just highlighting the inadequacy of its contributors in understanding the science they choose to write about.
HuffPo regularly features columns by Deepak Chopra, a man taken seriously by scores of people for his melding of New Age mysticism and quantum physics. His ideas make great science fiction — his central thesis is that actions on a quantum level have a cause-and-effect relationship with our own “Einsteinian” universe.
The problem is, the experts in the very field he uses in his theories are quick to decry Chopra’s work, countering that he not only has no understanding whatsoever of quantum physics, but seems to have problems with basic high school science. That hasn’t stopped Chopra from plundering quantum physics for celebrity and book sales, nor prevented HuffPo from attempting to validate his nonsense.
Chopra is no different than the swamis of the past who preyed on the gullible by giving them mystical answers to cure their own ills and encouraging them to embark on a never-ending program of self-improvement. If the process ever ended, the eager fingers would no longer reach in the wallet.
What is the difference between Christian faith healing and homeopathy? Not much. It’s all magical thinking and part of a belief that there is a mystical higher order that intervenes. The danger of New Age magical thinking is that it tries to wrap science into the mix in order to make something more acceptable than merely faith. It’s fine as a personal choice, but disingenuous from a media source like HuffPo that presents it as advocacy.
Magical thinking is magical thinking, whether it’s prayers being answered or homeopathic water having memory. It’s just different fairies delivering the magic — and no scientists.
If the proliferation of feel good, New Age anti-science wasn’t enough, this summer HuffPo crossed the line with an article by David Klinghoffer offering the hateful conservative version.
The senior fellow of the conservative think tank the Discovery Institute put forth his creationist agenda by blaming Darwin for Nazism through an argument of misstatements.
Klinghoffer was allowed to print lies such as this: “Evolutionary thinking inspired modern scientific racism. For Darwin, evolution explained the phenomenon — so he saw it — of racial inferiority. Some races were farther up the evolutionary tree than others. Thus, in his view, Africans were just a step above gorillas.”
This is the same Huffington Post that is continually haranguing O’Donnell and the Tea Party?
Thanks, HuffPo but no thanks. Being as scientifically ignorant as the people you rail against taints any political arguments you might make — and being medically dangerous is unforgivable.
October 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
For a perfect example of something that sounds dreadful when you read about it and dashes all your hopes of disappointment when you actually watch it, look no further than “Sherlock.” The show premieres on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery this Sunday, Oct. 24, at 9 p.m., and runs for the two weeks following.
It is unexpectedly one of the best mystery shows in years, shining with its seamless blend of old-fashioned whodunnits and modern-day crime fiction.
The three-part series has a dubious sounding set-up. Imagine, if you will, Sherlock Holmes is a dysfunctional, reclusive loner obsessed with consulting with the police on tough cases, despite a dim view of his sanity taken by some officers. One day, he needs a roommate, and in walks the war-scarred Dr. John Watson, who becomes entangled in Holmes’ shenanigans as they give him a new lease on life — and also something to write about in his blog and someone to bicker with.
The ingredients that make the premise work on screen include some smart acting and equal storytelling.
In England, writers are very much the stars of television, and audiences still drift from project to project based on who has scripted it. One of the biggest sensations of that scene has been Stephen Moffat, who, in conjunction with Mark Gatiss, functions as show-runner — he also wrote the first episode, and Gatiss wrote the third.
Moffat displays the same clever delivery he has displayed in his work on the revival of Doctor Who. In “Sherlock,” though, Moffat practically reinvents the crime show by merely looking backward. It’s a genre that has become overburdened with lurid sex crimes and bad-boy gangster shenanigans, but Moffat has dispensed of lurid modern affectations by riffing on original Holmes stories to craft intricate adventures that hinge on a variety of wrongdoing — a string of suicides, an antiquities smuggler and a manipulative bomber.
The gift of Moffat’s “Sherlock” is that a family can set together and watch it — and it’s not even remotely pandering or corny. Imagine the thrill of a crime drama not made to automatically exclude some younger viewers, while neither whitewashing the plot.
The series wouldn’t work, though, without Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman, from “The Office UK” and “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Universe,” as Watson. The two provide their characters with down-to-earth personalities you can latch onto, even though the essence of these roles can traditionally feel like a list of characteristics.
This is particularly a triumph for Cumberbatch, whose Holmes seems almost like a high-functioning autistic, so sensitive and disconnected is he from standards and conventions.
It’s the combination of the two types — Freeman’s Watson is a by-the-book, no-nonsense sort of fellow who’s being dragged down to the reality of the imperfect and rather messy world — that draws the audience in.
They are guides to each other’s world, and the implication is that we all build our own intrigue within our own circumstances. All you need is the focus of Holmes and the open mind of Watson.
October 18, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Director Lynn Hershman Leeson riffs on old horror and science fiction films in which a visionary scientist goes too far and unleashes monsters on the world. In this case, it’s three monsters and they’re virtual ladies, all color coordinated and played by Tilda Swinton, who also plays their creator.
Scientist Rosetta Stone combines her DNA with software in order to create computer viruses that are also clones of herself that can cross over into the real world. If that doesn’t make sense, this will make even less — they need sperm injected to stay alive, or, more specifically, the male Y chromosome.
One of the viruses, Ruby, goes out every night to seduce strange men and steal their precious bodily fluids in robotic transactions. It doesn’t go like clockwork, however — each encounter is left with a number stamped on his forehead, and the city begins to panic over a sexual predator spreading a disease.
Rosetta Stone, meanwhile, has to cover up her experiments from private detectives, medical investigators and the police.
Of course, this is all codswollop — enjoyable codswollop, but codswollop just the same — and it goes far to show that yesterday’s exploitation movie sometimes has a spiritual descendent in today’s art film. In capturing the digital world and that beyond, Leeson films in a high-definition video process that helps to lend the work a neon quality. That, along with the concept, transforms the movie into a bit of an ‘80s throwback. Imagine Tron meets Universal Pictures monster movies meets Russ Meyer and you get the idea.
This strange combination of elements provides the film with an allure that keeps you watching, and the satire is at a high enough level that you know Leeson is not taking this anywhere near as seriously as her genre ancestors did.
The involvement of Swinton also helps, as does the charming appearance of Jeremy Davies (Daniel Faraday from the television series “Lost”) as the kind-hearted copy shop attendant — this film’s version of the little girl the Frankenstein monster throws in the water.
What Leeson ends up creating is a document of network building that puts the accrual of relationships as an end in itself, where interactions are defined by use, give and take — transactions. Leeson seems to be speaking against this constant social buzz that the world has been gliding on, and taking a moment of contemplation toward the connections that are being made. In the virtual world, the network can also be a web of make believe, wishes, needs, out and out lies and posturing.
A network is only as strong as its connections, and Leeson offers an often silly, enjoyable examination of something that should be a simple truth.
October 18, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Pianist Marco Benevento never imagined his greatest career challenge would be lobbed at him by none other than Vincent Price.
Benevento was commissioned by Celebrate Brooklyn to provide a new score for Roger Corman’s adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “House of Usher,” which starred Price. The 1960 film will be screened at Mass MoCA as part of the Williamstown Film Festival, with Benevento performing that soundtrack on Friday, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m.
Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” features creepy Roderick Usher — played by Price in the film — and a visitor to his frightening country house. Corman, known for being creative with his very low budgets, delivered a film that changed some of the story elements in order to sex it up for the audience then, but is generally well-liked for delivering chills and style on the cheap.
Benevento is a Brooklyn-based experimental musician who is known for the weird sounds he gets out of his piano, organs and synthesizers.
In the past, he has worked with video after a song has been completed, but this was his first time scoring a film, and it wasn’t actually the type of movie he would have chosen for himself.
“I would have rather done ‘Tron’ or some sort of neon, fast-paced electronica sort of thing,” he said during an interview this week.
After watching the film, Benevento went over his own previously written music and found a few pieces that were appropriate to use in certain scenes, as well as a Leonard Cohen song and a Leadbelly song. Overall, though, he found that the mood he was after wasn’t really contained that much in his previous work. It taught him something about his music that he hadn’t realized before.
“A lot of my songs are pretty uplifting and light and electronicky, but more on the positive, melodic side,” Benevento said. “I tried sticking some of my other tunes in the movie and thought, ‘These aren’t working, I guess I’m going to have to write some new music.’ “
He worked up a couple of progressions and melodies that oozed the dark and moody atmosphere he sought. Part of his job was to complement the film without overshadowing it, while at the same time offering some level of musical commentary that would also add his spin to the work. It was a difficult tightrope to walk.
“It was a weird position to be in, because they hired me to be me,” Benevento said, “to put my own spin musically on this movie — period. They wanted me for my creativity and they liked what I did. I almost wish that they had told me what to do, because there were so many options.
“I took a humorous approach for a month and then the dark approach for awhile, and then I decided I should do the backing track with the thunder. Then I thought I should write new music. It was this ongoing discovery of what to do, and I almost wish they had given me limitations because I was overwhelmed with ideas — daily.”
He was leery of camping up the score and turning the film into some kind of post-modern comedic free-for-all, even though he clearly viewed parts of the film as funny 50 years after the fact.
“You trap yourself, and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t trap myself by going the humorous route,” he said. “I wanted to leave my options open, so I simply stuck with the horror tone of it all. It is what it is now. It’s more true to the dark tone of what they were trying to go for 50 years ago.”
Benevento found that when he performed the score in Brooklyn over the summer, there were some parts of the film at which the audience laughed. Usually they involved Vincent Price at a weird camera angle saying something ominous. Only once did Benevento give in to his temptation to bolster the humor — during a love scene. The audience was pleased with the choice.
“There’s this super epic, funny rock song that happens when they kiss,” Benevento said. “Everybody was cheering and laughing when we played it: ‘Yeah, lovemaking music!’ “
Benevento had some unexpected technical requirements for the piece, and it was an experience of learning on the job. Traditionally, the film scores commissioned by Celebrate Brooklyn to play with sound films would remove the original music and the dialogue, but Benevento was asked to keep the actor’s voices while inserting his own score. It was a huge challenge for him — sometimes music goes on under the dialogue — and Benevento had very little experience sound editing on video.
“I just carefully, meticulously went in and chopped up the audio file and faded in and faded out where conversations began and ended,” he said. “It was a task for some guy in a lab. There are probably people who may be able to do that much better than I did it, who are living in L.A. and do professional studio work. Somehow I found I could do it.”
Benevento also added a technical task himself, deciding he needed to add a portion of his score — the more ambient, electronic layers — to the audio track of the film itself, underneath the actors’ voices. This work was all done in his studio with various old synthesizers and electronic gadgets — he uses a Walkman for some sound filtering — in order to create thunder and wind sounds. This allowed him more freedom during the performance.
“There’s a layer of existing grayness that’s in there and which we play along to,” he said. “That’s helpful, so I don’t have all these things around the piano while I’m playing. I thought that would be fairly distracting if I was going to get all the sound I wanted.”
Benevento also decided to bring his visual collaborator and projectionist Jay Cooper into the project as a last minute decision, with the idea that Cooper could tweak the video digitally with some effects that would elevate the weirdness.
Cooper’s work adds a psychedelic quality to the movie. Sometimes it’s subtle, with light trails streaming from candles, or illuminations being added to figures in the basement. At the end of the film, Benevento says it becomes a psychedelic tour de force.
“You almost feel like you’re at a Pink Floyd show,” he said. “Even though I did a lot of work musically, I felt like it needed one more push artistically to make it my own, and also deal with that element of the scary, tripped-out thing. It works really well.”
Benevento is well known for his electronic experimentation. In his live show, he often utilizes different distortion and various amplifiers with his piano or, sometimes, Casio keyboards. This has been his fascination since high school.
“I was so into music synthesis, Moog keyboards, how sound was made and waveforms,” he said. “After school, I would go to the local college and study electronic music and music synthesis, and I learned all about the elements of sound.
“Getting into that sort of stuff and using those weird sounds in music at a young age definitely helped. That’s pretty valuable — all that time learning that stuff as well as being a dorky high school student with keyboards in his room and everybody going to bed and me staying up late with the headphones on and messing around with different ear candy, as I like to call it.”
It was the Japanese experimental recording artist Cornelius who opened Benevento’s eyes to the visual possibilities when they did some shows together. Cornelius featured visuals with his set, and Benevento took note of that.
“Back in the ‘80s, he would have VHS tapes and televisions behind the band, but now he’s got it really dialed in. I saw it effective in a musical concert setting with that band, and it was captivating for sure,” Benevento said.
Now Benevento regularly uses video as a backdrop in his performances, a precursor to the scoring work on “House of Usher.” The experience has given him ideas for further video scoring — he has recorded a version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” from the Disney film “Dumbo” that he hopes to be able to play on stage with the original sequence projected behind the band. It also works the other way — he has been able to tag some of this commissioned work to be included in his regular performances, complete with selected scenes from the film projected during the performance.
The unexpected benefit of the project for Benevento was not just the new material, but the new skills and the creative roads these provided. Thanks to “House Of Usher” and the intense on-the-job training, he is moving forward on entirely new artistic paths that did not exist before the commission.
“They wanted one guy to do it all,” he said. “They wanted me to do all the stuff and, as I did it over the months, I realized, oh my god, I now have this job and this job is an audio engineer, and now I have this job where I’m a master engineer, because I need to make the dialogue work, and so I was doing all these tasks, and I actually learned a lot doing this project. I actually did a lot more work than I thought.”
October 15, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Now that we are well past the point where we were headed into the future and find ourselves firmly planted in it, the cry of “Where’s my jet pack?” has bellowed from the lips of some who are disappointed with the way the future unfolded, at least ironically.
“The Wonderful Future That Never Was,” put together by science fiction author Gregory Benford with the help of the Popular Mechanics editors, uses this rallying cry as the starting point for a wonderful art book that ends up celebrating not what never was at all, but really the dreams we had that actually came true, just not as we expected them.
Reaching back through the over-a-century-old magazine archives, it seems as though it would be easy to find the ridiculous, but that isn’t quite the case. Sure, there are some obvious ones involving flying cars, domed cities and weather control — and some of the artistic visions of the cities of tomorrow are as mired in Flash Gordon dreams as they are wondrous — but so much of the material here shows the high aims of humankind and how, in many cases, we just had to temper some of our flights of fancy into realistic terms to make them happen.
The most fascinating predictions have to do with the creation of networked objects and, ultimately, the Internet, even though the pioneers of technology at the time couldn’t have known exactly what they were proposing. For instance, a 1932 prediction posited the idea of traffic signals inside the car, alerting the driver to the passability of an intersection before the car actually arrives there — this hints at the concept of cars joining a network of traffic signals, as well as GPS systems.
In 1967, the magazine predicted “mapless driving,” which involved dialing a code number that accesses driving instructions to be transmitted into the car to guide the driver. Our drive to create a networked culture goes far beyond travel, though. In 1940, the idea of video phones were breached — the only thing they couldn’t have foreseen is Skype. A photo phone was announced as an actual prototype in 1956, serving much the same purpose as a Flickr account does now. The idea of bringing entertainment and communication together into our homes seems to have been an obsession of our culture for decades.
In 1924 we hoped radio would someday be broadcast to millions of homes and that we would be able to see our presidential candidates carried on these airwaves, equalizing the campaign process. Two years later, it was predicted we would have radio schools and churches and newspapers and magazines. The idea of media being an intimate part of your home life continued with the idea in 1938 that newspapers would be printed in your home as facsimiles, delivered by radio wave.
As early as 1923, Netflix streaming films were a glimmer in our society’s eye with the prediction that movies would transmitted into our house by radio waves. In 1944, color, 3-D and other media were added to the home movie mix. These days, we do all these things on our computers.
The entire notion of a networked home, with the computer as the center of keeping things running smoothly, is unveiled in 1967 with ECHO IV — Electronic Computing Home Operator — which took up the basement of the Sutherland Family in Pittsburgh. Nowadays, an iMac or a Dell takes up merely a desktop — an iPhone fits in your pocket — but they all do pretty much the same job as ECHO IV did 40 years ago, helping to manage lifestyle data, money and tasks through databases.
Other areas mined early on are revealed throughout the book — cloning and genetic, sleep apnea, pacemakers, frozen dinners and climate controlled buildings were all addressed decades ago in one form or another.
Even multimedia art is considered — in 1924, it was suggested that “a thousand or more color forms, constantly changing in tone and in hue, are projected on the screen at the touch of an artist on an organ.”
And so the notions of digital art and computer controlled installations were born.
The beauty of “The Future That Never Was” is that the thought process of the world of science is revealed as a mix of whimsy and practicality through a system of never giving up until you’ve reconfigured your dreams to conform to reality. Because this was done for a magazine, there are plenty of mad illustrative realizations of the seemingly impossible that fueled the dreamers forward. These now keep us entertained as the history of our own crazy imaginations. God would have us ignoring apples and sitting around the jungle naked, but that’s not the way humans operate — we are a species driven by ideas, many of which are contained in this book.
Some of the ideas were mad, sure, but all of them were gorgeous.
October 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
All too often, certain types of movies are promised to be roller coaster rides but so rarely deliver on a true satisfying level. Usually they aren’t roller coaster rides at all, but orchestrated pictures of things on a screen going really fast, usually strung together by some dumb story.
“A Town Called Panic” lives up to the promise by getting to the emotional core of what you experience on a roller coaster.
There is always that moment on a real roller coaster when you think it might actually be careening out of control — that the guy you saw at the controls has fallen asleep, and the park ride has taken on a process of its own. There is no escape for you, and the ride will only continue on until the uncertain end that can only spell doom. So it is for “A Town Called Panic.”
Based on a Belgian television series and realized through a breakneck style of stop-motion animation, “A Town Called Panic” introduces the audience to housemates Horse, Cowboy and Indian — they are cheap little toy figurines of the type you purchase in large groups inside those big bags. You know the type — you can also get army guys.
Cowboy and Indian discover it is Horse’s birthday and resolve to get him something different for a birthday present. They decide on a homemade brick barbecue and order the materials to make it. The truck shows up and delivers the bricks. From there, it only goes downhill for the characters, and a madcap spiral begins that doesn’t relent for 90 minutes. Even as the film ends, there is no sign that the characters will get any rest.
The film is divided up into a series of set pieces that frame the peril of our heroes — there’s a volcano in the center of the earth and an underwater scene, as well a winter horrorland, and in each there is something to threaten the three figurines. It’s not only a scary universe fraught with danger — Horse is also juggling music lessons and a crush on the music teacher, plus the figurines must contend with their unhinged farmer neighbor Stephen, who constantly shrieks and bellows like an exercise instructor after too many cups of coffee.
In fact, much of the vocal delivery — in French with English subtitles — is characterized by frantic squeaks and honks that only add to the careening motion on the screen. The original series of short animations on which this film is based did find its way to American television at one point, but they were dubbed in England, which completely changed the texture of the story.
It also deprived viewers of some remarkable voice work. These aren’t the soulful, gentle clay characterizations of Wallace and Gromit, who suck you into their psyche and make you feel for them — instead, you stand back from Horse, Cowboy and Indian, an alien in their world of madness. They have no control, no sense, and their physical appearances — Cowboy and Indian even have those little plastic pedestals beneath their feet like their real-life counterparts — only serve to distance you further. They are but toys in a mad game of make believe orchestrated by some macabre child.
What ensues is pure slapstick, the variety of which hasn’t been seen in any clever form for decades now. And even though it might be tempting to compare it to Warner Brothers cartoons, I think Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton are more in order. These are caricatures of characters, and that’s their advantage in the creative comedy of their downfall and survival.
“A Town Called Panic” is one more testimony to the idea that Hollywood has really dropped the ball on animation, relying on digital work that too often looks the same as everything else. Wrought from mostly low-tech ingredients, the work in “A Town Called Panic” uses its roughness as part of the attraction. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny if it were slick, and it’s partially that rough edge that allows it to feel like a rudderless ship careening down a steep mountain.
It might end in pieces, but the wreckage will resemble what came before it, and that kind of devil-may-care craftsmanship and seat-of-your-pants realization of an idea is missing in far too much filmmaking these days, let alone in animation. It’s nice to see a movie forget its manners for a change.