My Own Private Berlinale pt 4

     |    Saturday March 2nd, 2013

by Andrew Horn

I remember many years ago reading a story by the science fiction writer Brian W. Aldiss called  “Aimez-Vous Holman Hunt?”. It imagined a computer program that could take a famous painting – in this case one by the above mentioned painter, though I don’t remember the title – and extrapolate a narrative out of it that would show what events led up to that captured moment, and what came after as if it were somehow real. Almost like a little movie, I guess, or like Superman using his super-computer to generate what-if scenarios in his past or future. And this was the 70s so computers could do anything.

I didn’t think to ask filmmaker Gustav Deutsch if that was what he had in mind, but, in an oblique way, I think he did something similar in his film “Shirley – Visions of Reality” which was based around cinematic reconstructions of 13 paintings by Edward Hopper.

As one would hope from this kind of project, great pains were made to duplicate the paintings as exactly as possible, which made the visual aspect particularly stunning. Each painting functioned as if it were a narrative scene and, as you would expect, presented as a tableau – but there was movement, both by the characters and the camera, sometimes more, sometimes less, and in one isolated case actually breaking apart the image. While I am a readily confessed fan of Hopper, I wasn’t always familiar with Deutsch’s choice of paintings, which may have worked to my benefit as a viewer – the effect being that I was not always sure which was the exact moment captured in the original painting, which kept the visuals from getting too brittle. It was like imagining various sketches or even discarded variations that went into the making of the final image. For me, this worked like a sort of conceptual 3D.

For sure, Hopper’s paintings already convey the idea of a narrative, even if only implied. Working off of that as a foundation, the film overlay’s it’s own narrative using the continuing presence of Hopper’s wife as the model, “assigning” her image to a fictional character named Shirley, an actress in the Group Theater in New York City. Each scene begins with a date – always August 28 – while an off-screen radio report from that day in each particular year places the scene in its particular historical milieu. The scenes move from 1931 in Paris to 1963 in Cape Cod and pick up random events in Shirley’s life that are played out through a series of monologues and occasional dialogues, which Shirley either overhears or shares with various transitory characters.

The effect is like that famous film exercise where you film a character with a neutral expression on his face and intercut it with an image that he is supposed to be looking at, and by changing the images, creating a different emotional effect because of the context. I don’t always like it when things get too meta, but in this case I have to say it worked pretty well and engaged me as much as any “real” story.

When I was still in film school working on my senior thesis film, my cameraman asked to borrow the edited workprint to show to someone about a job. I lent it to him and he lost it. The less said about that the better but a visit to my shrink resulted in a prescription for an anti-depressant called Mellaril. She instructed me to take one the first day, two the second day, three the third day, and, if I needed it, four, but that was the limit. I took a half and woke up 20 hours later. Let’s just say I didn’t pursue it any further. Not long afterwards, I happened to see what’s called a Physicians Desk Reference – a listing of all available drugs with pictures and lists of uses, effects and side effects. Just for the hell of it, I looked up my drug and found to my – shall we say – amusement that the list of symptoms it was supposed to cure, was almost completely the same as the list of side effects, just arranged in a different order.

With this in my mind I went to see Steven Soderbergh’s film, “Side Effects”, which sets you up for a crime drama that indicts the Pharmaceutical industry for making drugs that cause people to lose control and become harmful to themselves and others.

Rooney Mara plays a wife who is having trouble coping with her life after her hedge fund manager husband, played by Channing Tatum, is jailed for some kind of stock fraud. By the time he’s released, her mental state has deteriorated to the point that she is attempting suicide. A sympathetic doctor she meets in the ER, played by Jude Law, proscribes an experimental drug whose side effects include sleepwalking blackouts, during one of which it’s pretty certain – even though she says she can’t remember – that she’s murdered her husband.

The ethics of her treatment now come into question and, in fighting to exonerate himself, Law begins a slow spiral down, first losing a lucrative drug company consultancy, then losing his practice, his reputation, and finally his wife.

In the course of repeated twists and turns, it becomes less a mystery of who committed the crime but rather a mystery of what the crime actually was. And in so doing, the film’s indictment of Big Pharma actually becomes…well, I won’t say. It is about the side effects, but not those side effects. And I will say that when the person next to me started chuckling in realization what was really going on, I was still far from getting it.

Which is a good thing. Another good thing is that by the time Law finally gets it, his otherwise earnest and well meaning character, has been sucked into the vortex of all the dirty business going on around him. Of course he gets the due reward for all his good intentions, but we the audience can rest assured it’s not all peaches and cream at the end. If the final denouement didn’t quite knock me on my ass, I will allow it was good mean fun.

Consistent with my tradition of learning about the world through the back door, my first exposure to theater director Richard Foreman was in early 70s New York when I used to go to the Mercer Arts Center to see the likes of The NY Dolls, Wayne County (later Jayne County) and Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps. While performances there came and went, it seemed like the one constant was a play – a musical actually – in an adjoining theater called, “Dr. Selavy’s Magic Theatre”. Being more interested in the glitter acts next door, I gave it not one thought.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I was taken to a show called “Rhoda In Potatoland” that I actually saw Richard Foreman and the Ontological Hysteric Theater. This play was a part of a series that followed the adventures of Rhoda, her husband Max and Max’s muse Sophia. My chief memory of this show, and various other ones that I saw later, was of everybody – actors and audience – being under total assault. We were crowded together in very hard seats in a space with a low ceiling, attacked by loud distorted music, sound loops of laughing songs, sudden loud crashes, billiard balls being rolled down the overlong depth of the stage and the loud, slow, low pitched, off-stage voice of Foreman as director ordering his actors around – “do it…again…Rhoda! Do it…very…slowly!” If it was all about torture, and it was, anyone who stuck it out was ultimately rewarded from the whole experience.

“Once Every Day” is Foreman’s second film, and his first for over thirty years. I hadn’t seen a Foreman play since the early 90s – would he still be able to dish it out? And more importantly, would I still be able to take it?

It looks like it could have been made thirty years ago, seeming to have been shot in some outmoded video format with scenes processed into crude video effects with outmoded technology. The still that was published in the catalogue was both literally taken from the film and wholly unrepresentative of the experience.

True to Forum Expanded’s mandate of ambiguity in definitions, it was arguably more of a performance than a film. Arguably it would have been more at home as an installation but at the same time, having to sit through it on a big screen with full concentration certainly made an impression.  And yet when I think back on it, there was almost no performing going on at all. Foreman said it was shot in a few days and edited for over a year, which seems to have been the way to go because it all seemed to have come together out of…well, nothing – just people standing against walls, lying in rows on the floor, looking at the camera, looking at the camera with handkerchiefs on their faces – singly and in groups – and if anyone actually said anything, I can’t remember what.

But all the familiar elements were there – the sudden loud noises, the loud distorted music, Foreman’s loud low voice giving direction and making comments, which was now augmented with text on the screen that either made some kind of nonsensical commentary or some kind of abstract design. All this coupled with the crude looking image quality, which in these days of HD looked incredibly crude.

Reading it over, it probably all sounds ghastly but what it was, was the same kind of torture that I so fondly remember. I couldn’t tell you why it works, but it you like that sort of thing – and I guess, even after all this time, I do – it does.