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The eyes of BalletLab performers have a unique quality. There is a strange, distant, satisfied world behind them. Strange in its exoticism, distant in its mystery, satisfied in its method.

In a work like Amplification, this quality suggested the serious certainty of mortality—death being exotic, mysterious and inevitably methodical. In a work like Aviary, this quality infused the occasionally maddening ornithology with an equally maddeningly convincing internal logic—the kind of logic that is masked, impenetrable and yet undeniable. In a work like Miracle, this quality suited the transcendental mysticism to a tee—is there anyone as strange, distant and satisfied as someone on a higher plane of consciousness?

And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow is a double bill of works by Brooke Stamp and Phillip Adams that both make full use of the BalletLab corps. Thematically, the works feel linked to Miracle. They are cosmological, ritualistic and transcendental.

Brooke Stamp’s And All Things Return to Nature kicks off the evening in full house lights. We are seated in an unevenly weighted square, where two sides are stacked with audients and two sides are made of only single rows. Above the stage are suspended 16 cymbals that form a golden circle of circles, a halo of musical vibration. The dancers are clad in high fashion sportswear by Susan Dimasi—part Nike the brand, part Nike the goddess. As visual signposts, the design elements point the way clearly enough: this will not be proscenium theatre, we will encounter the celestial, we will be party to mysticism dressed in high technology fibres.

Initially, the dancers move in isolation. They are transfixed by their own paths through space, uninterested in the other, wrapped in the self. Their gentle vocalisations suggest chants, incantations, mantras. Garth Paine’s intensely detailed composition picks these sounds up and layers them, forming a cascading aural blanket of indiscernibility.

As the dancers draw together, Stamp’s choreography echoes one of Phillip Adams’ stylistic touchstones with a prolonged sequence of action—in this case, a shuffling unison of steps. As the four performers stretch from a line to a diamond to a square, the squeak of their sneakers against the floor becomes a lulling certainty. Though their steps never break the unified rhythm, their faces betray some deeper meaning. At times, their eyes subtly shift focus and lose clarity. The strange, distant, satisfied world vacates them and one sees the struggle, the striving and the searching. Higher planes are hard work.

In Tomorrow by Phillip Adams, the eyes are back on full beam. Entering naked, the performers build a stage of swags, stones, fluorescent twine, reflectors and audience members. We are courting UFOs, constructing a landing pad and hoping for ascension in the form of abduction. The eyes, the nudity and the whispered intimacies with the front rows set up a peculiar dynamic of compelling coerciveness. What are you willing to do in the safe confines of a theatre with a hundred witnesses? When you look into a naked man’s eyes and see an exotic, mysterious and assured alternative world, will you follow him? It is to BalletLab’s credit that we do. They have created a cult with nothing more than their eyes.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime issue 114, April-May 2013, pg. 35, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/114/11064

The title More or Less Concrete might as well be a concise personality test of the half-glass variety. Are you a more concrete person? Or a less concrete person? Or are you more or less a concrete person?

Do you look for concrete meaning, narrative and figuration in Tim Darbyshire’s creation? Or do you look instead between the figuration to the abstractions, reveries and enigmas? You might find yourself pondering such questions as you take off your headphones at the end of More or Less Concrete.

Yes, you get headphones. For a production presented with a fairly standard end-on seating bank and a letterbox proscenium arch it seems an odd choice. The sound design itself rarely makes specific use of the medium in terms of aural quality, apart from at the very beginning, when a brilliant rendering of a muffled conversation between a man and a woman seems real enough for one to question the soundproofing of the North Melbourne Town Hall. Apart from that, the sound itself is not so quiet, nor so delicate that one needs headphones to discern it.

What the headphones largely achieve is to personalise and internalise the audio. On the one hand, there is the physical reality that no one else is hearing your headphones. On the other hand, there is the psychological paranoia that someone else’s headphones are getting better sound. Looking at rows of audience members in front of you, it becomes impossible not to feel distanced from them by this technological interference and perhaps the ubiquity of headphones in public spaces has rendered them a visual liability as much as an aural utility. This personalising aspect is compounded by how our brains process the information from headphones. We can perceive depth, location and movement using only our ears. When we move our heads, the sound signals alter slightly and this gives us even clearer metrics on where the sound is coming from. Headphones, by not changing the sound signals when we move our heads, cancel our depth perception. Our brain decides that the sound cannot be external and collapses the sound image into our head.

For a work like More or Less Concrete, this internalisation of the audio is a potential boon. So much of what Darbyshire seems to be striving for here is a liminal space between humour and melancholy, between the concrete and the abstract. The internalising aspects of the headphones can engender the pensive questioning of ambiguity required, they beg for subjective wandering. Yet, Darbyshire and his collaborators have not fully capitalised on their decision. The sound design largely remains within the literal diegetic sphere of amplified sounds from the stage relayed in real time. These sounds themselves are often literal in their choreographic derivation: the dancers move their arms as though being inflated and make sounds of inflation, the dancers move like animals and growl appropriately, a dancer bites an apple and we hear the crunch of an apple. Musique concrète is cited as an inspiration but there is only very occasionally the kind of collage, musicality and poetry that Pierre Schaeffer and his acolytes brought to that form. When the sound and the movement do contrast, both are made more profound, more expansive and mysterious. We are given room to imagine, to set our minds adrift in this non-literal space and the piece lifts accordingly. In other words, I wanted less concrete and more concrète.

Visually, More or Less Concrete can be seen as an evolutionary bildungsroman in blue. It begins with a distant body, an indiscernible blue clay that writhes slowly until it ejects one human form, then another and another. Their bodies are heavy, weighed down by the primordial soup, leaving only their backsides to float upwards. They find breath, they find limbs, they find extension. Bit by bit, they approach us, mounting one obstacle after another though they can barely stand. As they emerge finally beyond the proscenium, the house lights rise to meet them but their eyes are closed like moles, like newborns. It is all too much for them. Not 45 minutes ago they were still sparks in Prometheus’ eye. Now, they retreat slowly into the gloom far away.

But through our headphones we still hear their echo in our heads. Sound travels slower than light. 

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/11026

Four years ago, at Dance Massive 2009, the Meat Market in North Melbourne played host to the premiere of Lucy Guerin’s Untrained. Her latest work, Conversation Piece, can be read as an evolution and extrapolation on this earlier work.

Untrained placed two professional dancers beside two complete dance novices in an investigation of performativity, purity and, of course, training. Conversation Piece places three professional dancers beside three professional actors in an investigation of performativity, language and modes of communication.

Untrained was restricted to a clinical essence of form, a physical call-and-response, where the authorial voice of Guerin was evident only in the structure (a list of provocations), rather than in the content, which wholly derived from the performers. Conversation Piece operates with a somewhat looser form, where the performers now respond to one another’s provocations, and is leavened with choreographed intermissions that act to reassert Guerin’s voice in proceedings. Guerin also gradually inflects the piece with a unifying tone and a quasi-narrative based around the performers as characters rather than the performers as themselves.

The set for Untrained was simply a grey square marked out by a white line. The set for Conversation Piece is a minimalist suggestion of an anonymous waiting space—a bus terminal, a Centrelink office—with its three sets of four orange chairs echoing those in Shaun Parker’s This Show is About People.

Untrained was an experiment in physical performance unmediated by technology. Conversation Piece is an experiment mediated by iPhones, which do not act as phones, but rather as audio and video recording devices, playback devices and, crucially, as signifier of the age.

What is the value of juxtaposition? When one places a trained body beside an untrained body, does it simply reveal that one can pirouette, the other not? When one places an actor beside a dancer, does it simply reveal that one can speak, the other move? When one places one show beside another, does it similarly reveal only the literal points of difference?

In Untrained, the juxtaposition revealed as much about the audience as it did about the men on stage; what did we find engaging, funny, charming, impressive? It deftly walked the line between a celebration of naivety and experience, without falling into mawkishness or snobbery.

In Conversation Piece, the juxtaposition is more complex and more ambitious. Yes, we are at times invited to witness the gladiatorial struggle between body and voice, as though it were a battle of virtuosity where our laughter or applause determine the victor. But we are also asked to consider how both these forms—how communication itself—is affected by the iPhones’ mediations.

The work begins with an eight-minute improvised conversation between the three dancers, which is recorded on iPhones. The three actors come on stage, plug into an iPhone each and listen back to the conversation. Each actor then relays one of the dancers’ words, but stripped of modulation, gestures or appropriate tone. When all laughs are presented as cackles, all words presented with the same intonation and there is no gestural language available, it is a spoken text message. Some commentators have begun diagnosing texting-addicted teenagers and twenty-somethings as ‘flatliners’—their lack of engagement with the spoken word turning them into the walking dead of verbal communication. In Conversation Piece, the actors bring them alive.

In other respects, Conversation Piece rehashes some very familiar twentieth century tropes. The presentation of people linked together on a superficial level of purpose but without any expressive connections—that is to say, people waiting together at a bus terminal—is at least as old as Jean-Paul Sartre and his conceptions of seriality and alterity. So, if philosophers and artists have warned of increasing human disconnectedness since the inception of radio, what more can be said? Perhaps nothing completely new, but Guerin steadily pushes the tone of Conversation Piece into unexpectedly sinister landscapes.

At first, we might see a young woman talking irrepressibly in a one-way stream—channelling all three parts of the original recorded conversation. Then, the social one-sidedness might morph into the attempt a young man makes to converse with another man capable only of non-sequiturs. After this, that young man might start to manipulate the other man’s body in an increasingly cruel and unusual manner. Perhaps a woman debases and humiliates another woman in front of everyone. Perhaps a man, uncomfortable in conversation, unsure of himself with others, enacts a slow motion murderous fantasy in a bus terminal. The most important aspect is that all these things happen as monologues.

Conversation Piece is not about the conversation at the beginning of the show. It is about the lack of conversation anywhere else.

 

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue111/10836

Skeleton is a struggle between strength and fragility. Like its namesake, the production itself is hard but brittle. Hard in the demands it places on the athletic dancers, brittle in its undernourished overall vision.

The work draws inspiration from Ricky Swallow’s sculptures, specifically those involving skulls and 80s paraphernalia. This is a tricky point to leap from. A vital feature of Swallow’s art is his ironic use of monumentality—making the unimportant extravagantly important, the practical completely impractical. It is a feature that is, to a certain extent, predicated on his medium, which is static and timeless. The theatre—kinetic and ephemeral—is a different beast entirely.

Nevertheless, Larissa McGowan and Sam Haren’s subsequent vision for Skeleton is of an “archaeological puzzle” that fleshes out the human frame with the muscle of pop culture. Unfortunately, the skeleton and the muscle end up running parallel. McGowan’s choreography carves out the physical concreteness of the skeleton in the present tense, whereas the pop culture exists merely as artefact, never truly coming alive. These artefacts include an all-white BMX that directly quotes Swallow’s famous 1999 work “Peugeot Taipan, Commemorative Model (Discontinued Line).” Lisa Griffiths’ intricate dance with the bike is expert in its execution but the interaction is not affecting, for her or for us. The archaeology of culture is not merely the digging up of urns, it is also the contextualising of the urn. And, though the props are skateboards and stilettos and the sound design is littered with Nintendo bleeps and horror movie howls, the work as a whole fails to build a context for these references, stripping them of meaning.

McGowan’s choreography bears the hallmarks of her time with Australian Dance Theatre. It is fast, explosive and at its best when the speed and forcefulness catch the viewer by surprise. Softness is not part of the vocabulary, nor should it be, given the subject matter. McGowan extends the dancers’ bodies as though from within them, the internal physical mechanics becoming apparent. And there seems to be a recurring motif of bodily disassociation, where the intention of the mind and the action of the body run counter to one another. We see this in Lewis Rankin’s frenzied solo, in Griffiths’ suddenly stiffened muscles. The choreographic language is rooted in the mechanical and, importantly, it is firmly internal.

The dynamics between the dancers are similarly mechanical. There is no engagement, nor relationship between them beyond emotionless grappling. This isolates the dancers from one another, creating spatial pockets of action rather than a stage full of tension, love, contempt or any other of a host of intangibles that can imbue the space between people with meaning. This, in itself, is not necessarily a negative, but the isolation here feeds into the larger, more crucial problem of the show’s parallel themes not interacting.

Skeleton promises most when it is at its most playful. Jonathon Oxlade’s design is perhaps too rigorously geometrical but the black screens that whisk across the stage are a brilliant creation. Silent and smooth, the screens deposit dancers and props in place or clean them up on their way out. They are a physical manifestation of a film edit, all the more appealing for their simplicity. Their use is effective as a way of quickly altering the space, but their potential is most apparent when reinventing images as though by magic. In these instances, the pop film language that the screens nod to is given its due weight but more could have been made of these opportunities.

Similarly, Jethro Woodward’s sound design is often a remarkable assault of mashed up film foley sounds. The splatter, the gore, the piercing screams are punched together so quickly that they become their own delicious music. However, as they lose their distinctness they also lose some of their ironic humour and the chance to juxtapose contrary or incongruous references is also missed. Occasionally, the engagement between the dancers’ bodies and the score approaches the well-worn path of fighting to sound effects (recall the martial arts scene of Chunky Move’s Tense Dave, 2003). McGowan steers away from that course for the most part, but the result feels like a compromise rather than a strong alternative.

In the end, the real strengths of Skeleton—the internal electricity of McGowan’s choreography, the dedication of the dancers, the magic of the black screens—cannot sustain a full-length show. The bones are willing but the flesh is weak.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/11003

Ashley Dyer’s Life Support tackles the politics of smoke with highly inventive brio. We are talking not merely of the personal politics of the body and health, but also the societal politics of pollution and climate change. No small feat.

The politics begin in the foyer. When we collect our ticket we are asked three questions for which our answers are noted:

1. Are you a smoker? (2 out of 39 respondents said yes)

2. Can you hold your breath for 60 seconds? (29 respondents said yes)

3. Have you ever saved a life? (28 respondents said yes)

The statistics on smoking were inconsequential; the statistics on breath holding were empirically proven to be highly inflated; but the politics lay in the heroic nature of our audience. Two were chosen by the artists to volunteer the nature of their life saving story. Then, having heard the tale of their heroism, we, the citizens of Dancehouse, voted on who would be our leader. They would determine when the show ended—a form of representative audience participation.

In the theatre itself, the work begins with a prolonged scene of a man smoking in a pool of light. It is impossible to escape cliché here: the practiced precision of the rollie; the sensuous intake of breath; the smoke drifting listlessly into the spotlight above; the deliberate poking of the ashtray; the fetishisation itself. One of the few clichés missing seems to be smoke rings. But on that, Dyer is ahead of the game.

Entering with what looks like a small drum, a performer stands behind the smoking man. Tapping the drum, filled with smoke, exudes perfectly formed smoke rings. Their sticky consistency, perfect curve and persistence through the air draw approving murmurings from the audience but, though the technical achievement and ingenuity of the method are laudable, it is the incurrence of bathos that is most effective. As the smoker adopts various arch poses, the smoke rings break on his head, his fist, they surround him and undercut him, undoing the vanity of his opening scene. Caught in the shafts of light, clusters of rings seem like visions of autoluminescent jellyfish. Thus, despite the bathos, the smoke itself never loses its primal appeal nor its mystery. It is as though Dyer is suggesting: smokers come and go, but smoke itself is eternal.

The magic of smoke and its visual elasticity are perhaps too enchanting. Life Support lags when it too overtly presents smoke as effect, rather than smoke as visual language. For instance, the smoke rings are followed by smoke bubbles, which are undeniably stunning as an effect, but in terms of affect offer nothing new. At times like this, Dyer’s formal investigation and his political enquiry have not fully melded.

However, the formal enquiry is important to the political one. Initially, the lighting reveals the smoke. Later, when the smoke is denser, it reveals the lighting; it makes visible the rays, cones and striations of the design. Similarly, speakers rigged to buckets of smoke create automated smoke rings on beats. Dyer is making the invisible visible and, in so doing, draws our attention to how much we are otherwise able to overlook—how are those lights and speakers powered but for smoke?

The smoker from the opening scene is present, if not pivotal, throughout. He is eventually, with solemn ceremony, plastic-wrapped into a cage filling with smoke. The image is haunting and affecting. The choking opacity of the smoke is broken at first by a disembodied hand pressed against the plastic. At the same time, smoke machines above the audience are turned on for the first time and the back wall of the set pushes in towards us. It is a nightmarish vision of asphyxiation and I wondered if this was the time to end the show. Was our representative leader, elected on the basis of her life saving abilities, to cut short the mesmeric display to save the performer’s life?

No. At least not this time.

Instead, the performer himself aborts his gassing with a slash of the plastic wrap. The back wall of the set closes in on us further, cutting off our view of the stage and, then, an object descends from the ceiling above our heads—a jaunty deus ex machina in the form of a glowing plastic sea urchin playing glitchy reggae as it descends. Apparently now was the time to end the show, though I cannot help but feel that the political agency of the citizenry might have been more seriously put to use two minutes earlier. But maybe that is the answer to Dyer’s political enquiry: you get what you vote for.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/11001

Back in 2008, Antony Hamilton’s debut full-length work, Blazeblue Oneline, established some of his choreographic reference points: street dance, graffiti, the link between the visual and the physical. In that production, the sheer bursting mass of his creative energy led to a procession of set pieces both tonally and chromatically varied. Given a large blank canvas, Hamilton threw everything on it at once. Somehow, it hung together remarkably well.

If Blazeblue Oneline was his thesis, then Black Projects 1 & 2 are his antithesis. Both are fascinated with the physical possibilities of mark-making and the ways in which a flat canvas can achieve three dimensions. However, where the former is ranging, the latter is taut. Where the former is exuberant, the latter is stern. Light, dark. Colourful, monochromatic. Et cetera. Hamilton has zeroed in on one section of his palette in order to go deeper rather than broader.

Black Project 1 is a study on the most minimal of variations. At first, there is nothing but a rumble. The rumble itself, if magnified, if expanded, would be discernible as a set of beats or individuated vibrations. But here it is a single sound, as large and enveloping as the sky. The set is a black floor and a black wall built on top of a black floor in front of a black curtain. But none of the blacks are truly black; there is a bit more gloss here, a small scuff there. The tonal vagaries are enhanced by a subtly shifting, cloudy projection on the wall.

In his program note, Hamilton claims he set out to investigate whether it is possible to create a controlled, neutralised aesthetic environment devoid of the subjectivity of context. He readily admits he failed. However, subjectivity aside, the kind of minimalist order he seeks will always be trumped by instabilities — entropy inevitably wins. One can look to minimalist music for precedents: Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, in which two notes on a piano are played continuously for some fifty minutes until the harmonics and tuning change entirely; or the phasing of Steve Reich’s tape loops. Given time and space, imperceptible differences become meaningful.

Hamilton’s choreography retains an austere, antihumanist formalism throughout Black Project 1. It resists any ready kind of psychological meaning making. Perhaps its only consistent symbolism comes in the paradoxical theme of erasure as revelation. The two dancers remove tape from their blackened bodies to reveal white skin, they remove tape from the walls to reveal jagged lines that are half silicone chip, half Suprematist painting. There is the potential for a political statement here, but Hamilton is too clear-eyed to step fully into any easy narrative. He remains steadfast in his investigation of tone and neutrality.

In Black Project 2, the visual language is even more restricted than in Black Project 1, though the number of dancers has tripled to six. The floor projections are almost exclusively of triangles, the costumes are identical baggy black body suits, the choreography largely limited to pivoting symmetrically about a central axis (though the dancers’ symmetry unfortunately falters in more complex choreographic phrases).

The central axis is key. The dancers slink on in front of the set of Black Project 1 and mass in a huddle. As the dominating sound design shifts from rasping solidity into fluidity, so the dancers transpose themselves into a six-headed beast, symmetrical on either side of the centre line. As they move their arms, they become a giant, animated, breathing Rorschach test. Neutrality be damned, Hamilton challenges us to project our Freudian unconscious onto the bodies of the dancers. Is this a rebuke to subjectivity? A literalising of the symbolic? Or is the reference accidental?

Black Project 2 feels less assured than the first; its connection between form and content is less coherent. The symmetry of the choreography could easily be read as a kaleidoscopic expression of fractal geometry, the projections certainly point that way. But with this colder reading of intent, how do we make sense of the moments that are not symmetrical? When one dancer falls deliberately out of line, the others quickly draw them back in. Is this a nod to the human desire for breaking machine-like rules or is it a barbed attack on the normative functions of Freudian psychotherapy? Probably neither. Rather than eschewing symbolism, here, Hamilton piles it on with a confounding thickness.

However, at the end of Black Project 2, Hamilton’s symbolism pays dividends. The six dancers reverently construct a small black pyramid to idolise. Then, in the closing moments, the pyramid vertices glow red — the only colour yet seen. While the dancers remain bowed in shadow, the audience find themselves applauding a glowing red pyramid as though it really were a thing worth idolising.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/10998

Antony Hamilton’s previous full-length works have been unified by a predilection for the adolescent or naïve. In the excellent Blazeblue Oneline, it was the playful mark making of graffiti mixed with cardboard box Transformers. In I Like This, Hamilton, together with Byron Perry, ended a piece about dance creation with a beautiful image of themselves as prelapsarian boys under a doona—fascinated by the magic of light, the possibility of imagination. In Drift, the theme continues with what feels like a pastiche of Heavy Metal comic book tropes.

On the other hand, the clearest point of difference between Drift and Hamilton’s earlier work is that this one eschews the theatre and takes place under a highway. Whether it is the epic scale of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in a disused quarry, or the intimate celebration of the Flinders St – Elizabeth St intersection by The League of Resonance, site-based works call on their environs and their architecture for framing, for meaning, for reflection. Hence, it seems utterly appropriate that a work set underneath a highway should also be a drive-in show, where we park side-by-side and tune in to the soundtrack’s frequency. In fact, there is a giddy thrill in being given a map and a radio frequency instead of a ticket.

And so, in the gravel and dust beneath the CityLink overpass, down past the Xanadu tent, beside the film studios, in the shadow of the crippled remains of the Southern Star Observation Wheel, across Railway Canal from the city of shipping containers, in front of a row of cars, Antony Hamilton and friends create a post-apocalyptic vision. In that sense, this is a work that responds to its space. The Docklands, and the Wheel in particular, are the perfect location for an examination of the end of history, the folly of civilisation and the browbeaten individual.

Drift has already begun when we arrive. Three dancers are crouching and fretting their way across the ground in single file. They are led by a man in a dust-coloured hoodie who is shadowed at every step and bounce by a pair of ninjas. Yes, they are almost certainly ninjas. A soundtrack of noise, hum and beeps on our radio begins to divulge string instruments, percussion, an incoherent voice or scream. Above us, the tops of concrete pillars flicker with an enigmatic light.

We are watching from some distance, through the inherent frame of a windscreen with the necessary intermediary of glass at a landscape-cum-set that is vast in its reach and its scale. Yet, the dance itself is small and precise, with the physical strobe of jerking motions that Hamilton has incorporated so frequently in his work. Therein lies a problem. There is already a detachment in sitting behind glass, there is a detachment in being in the familiar space of one’s car and there is a distance between audience and the barely-lit dancers. One senses that Hamilton wants to play with this detachment in the sense of its consequent voyeurism—that we have stumbled upon a strange world in a place we have no call to visit normally—but that feels like a conceptual cul-de-sac given that there is no follow-through either on the notion of gaze, or on our presence. Instead, these distancing factors compound on each other to obscure and detract from the choreography. Or rather, the choreography does not fully meet the demands of the location. In this sense, Drift does not respond to its space but merely uses it as a backdrop.

Nevertheless, there are glimpses of what could have been. After the ninjas have left, a woman emerges in nothing more than boots, undies and bejewelled bracelets swinging a large tree branch in desperate circles. The image is strikingly strange and drew some confused looks from a group of young men who happened to wander past, but the image that stands out is when the woman, trying to plant the lifeless branch in the barren ground, holds onto its bulk to stop herself from falling. A spotlight falls on her and the wind blows her hair dramatically to one side. The image of nakedness, lifelessness and futility is framed perfectly by the massive concrete pillars and suddenly the work responds to its epic setting with an image of epic decay.

It finishes with a disappearing act. The topless woman, the ninjas and their leading man have clashed but eventually come to terms and, together, hugging the contours of concrete, they escape from view and we are ushered to start our engines and depart. As we drive off, talk turns to deserts and princesses, shamans and evil warlords, Conan the Barbarian and the seventies. The adolescent pop culture of the drive-in lives on.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission. http://realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2011/10260

In the performing arts, memory can be short. Fashions are forgotten, missteps are glossed over, wheels are reinvented. It is the blessing and curse of producing ephemera. So, when a choreographer upsets the usual cycle of memory lapse by returning to an old work, what is the result? How does an audience primed for immediacy respond to archival distance? What do we see and what do we miss?

Amplification is the work that launched BalletLab and Phillip Adams. Its premiere dates back to the far reaches of 1999. The same year, sanctions against Libya were dropped, something called Napster started and The Matrix opened. So, in some respects, Amplification is ancient history. Yet, here it is again, resurrected.

It is impossible to watch Amplification with eyes a decade younger—to see it now is to see it with the knowledge of what has come since. The problems this gives rise to are clear: the groundbreaking may now seem derivative, the accessible may now seem obscure and the noteworthy may now disappear into a fog of familiarity. However, the rewards are nevertheless there. Amplification holds its own if only because, while some of the style might seem dated, the expressive language remains distinct. Adams’ direction and choreography, in its metaphorical leaps and snowballing dramaturgy is unlike anything else at Dance Massive so far.

It is possible to draw a worthwhile comparison here with German choreographer Sasha Waltz. Premiering only a few months later than Amplification, Waltz’s seminal Körper (seen recently at the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival, RT94) has informed not only a decade of contemporary dance but also marked a fundamental moment of artistic expression for Waltz herself. In the subsequent years, Waltz has produced two other works—S and noBody—in response to Körper, making a trilogy of sorts that reflects her development as an artist as much as it does the development of the themes. Similarly, just over a year ago, Adams produced a response to Amplification called Miracle (RT 93). And this year he produced a third instalment, Above.

The most enticing conclusion to be drawn from this is that Amplification is an incomplete work. One that provokes questions rather than providing answers; one that leaves you wanting more; one that Adams has not finished exploring. This also suggests an excellent reason for a remount—for the audience to revisit a work with knowledge of its progeny.

Indeed, as someone who came to Miracle before Amplification, it is only possible to view the older work refracted through the lens of the newer. On the one hand, the distillation and evolution of Adams’ choreography in Miracle becomes evident—for instance, his increased trust in the dancers as embodiments rather than functionaries of his expression. On the other hand, cross-referenced understandings can be reached—for example, the common motif of the saffron cloth makes an overlong ritualistic swaddling of a corpse in Amplification ring with the memory of Miracle’s extraordinary final image of levitation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a choreographer, the locus for Adams’ artistic interest tends to be the body itself. But rather than the encyclopaedic vein of Waltz’s investigation in Körper, Adams is particularly focused on the extremities that the body can conquer, endure or suffer, which leads inevitably to the final extremity—mortality (like live performance, the body too is ephemeral).

In Miracle, the body was a site for internal hysteria, a hindrance to be denied, a vessel to be exited. In Amplification, the violence enacted on the body comes from without. The partnering work is fast and violent, bodies flung with disregard, Lynton Carr’s soundtrack an oppressive ceiling edging downwards. The space is never fully devoid of menace—the silhouetted torture scene is reminiscent of the disturbingly sterile violence of Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogonidia: BR.#04 Brussels (RT 76), yet there are moments that almost break into the absurd—threatening toy cars roll towards the dancers, one scene mimics the tropes of horror films, another alludes to the symphorophilia of J.G. Ballard’s Crash.

In the end, the clearest point of contrast between Miracle and Amplification comes not in their exploration of the living body but in their vision of the afterlife. Miracle ended with a transcendent sleight of hand, a weightlessly impossible vision of the body in harmony with space. In Amplification, the body retains its mass. The afterlife here is one grounded in the body’s inescapability and so, one by one, the naked bodies of the dancers form a soft eternal landscape.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 10, and is reproduced with permission.

Branch Nebula’s Sweat is concerned with turning our attention to the invisible members of society—the ones who pull back our chairs, sweep up our dead skin, wipe away our skidmarks and collect our cafeteria trays. Coincidentally, Chunky Move’s Connected touches on similar ground with its dip into the world of security guards, but Sweat tackles the brief far more directly and provocatively.

Nevertheless, it starts by turning our attention to our own behaviour. On entering the well-lit vastness of the North Melbourne Town Hall, there is nothing to look at but ourselves as we mingle and coalesce in atolls of strangers and acquaintances. It is the foyer writ large, a continuation of the antespace and, yet, Sweat has actually begun. From the gathering comes the sound of a welcome. A young woman, dressed in black with a tray and an apron, steps forward to suggest that we really could have made a better entrée—too noisy, too slow and now we are running late. But punctuality is less important than quality so we are asked to leave and re-enter properly. It is a disempowering experience, like any scolding, which is followed on our second entrance by a pronouncement of the social contract we are entering into. We are expected to stand and move as instructed, to do so autonomously when required, to empathise with the performers, to view them objectively on occasion, to clap them at the end until we are told we can stop clapping and to be upbeat about the show afterwards, indeed, to focus on three central messages:

  1. that we saw ordinary people doing extraordinary things
  2. that the piece challenged accepted forms but always remained accessible
  3. that it is a work of great importance to the future of Australia

The sheer tongue-in-cheek gall and cliché of these pronouncements produces knowing titters in the audience and they are delivered with the host-like air of a waiter explaining the evening’s specials, but the tone shifts markedly as our host walks from one audience member to another and asks them first to dress her in the accessories of a cleaner and then to remove her other clothes. At last, semi-naked in rubber gloves and hairnet, she kindly asks a man to force her to the ground. He complies. The shoe of disempowerment is now firmly on the other foot and we have all been implicated.

This simple point of departure is reminiscent of the recent work of performance artists like Georgie Read, who play a consciously mercurial game of push-pull with the audience’s affection. Throughout Sweat, the performers invite our attention and the visibility it affords with flirtatious glances, sweetness and displays of skill. But they can just as quickly disappear into the resentful distance, punish us or deride our presence. This dynamic with the audience enacts the same power hierarchies that are being represented in front of us, where the performers are ordered to clean the floor with their hair, threatened with violence and abused in Spanish in the course of a few minutes.

The piece is constantly shifting in its use of space, using an ingenious collection of mobile light sources to carve out discrete landscapes. And the audience, as instructed, moves about to stay in contact with what is happening, but the reason for the movement itself is not always clear. As an aesthetic policy it is interesting—forcing us to engage with different angles, different architectures, rejigging our perspective. On the other hand, the meaning-making of it is sometimes less evident or necessary. When we are asked to choose a corner to stand in and, thereby, choose a performer to favour, the act of choosing is a potentially loaded act. What are our criteria? Why do we choose a man and not a woman? Why do we look around to see what we are missing? Yet, the subsequent scene feels redundant in its reformulation of previous content and the movement of the performers from corner to corner negates the weight of our choice and elides the kind of interrogation it could provoke.

However, this is a quibble with one short moment in the middle of Sweat and, towards the end, in its final set piece it regains most of the traction it had to begin with. A group of audience members are invited to sit a table, where the performers, dressed as sweatshop workers, politely serve them wine, spaghetti, tomato soup, peas, pineapple, frankfurters—the kicker being that these items are ladled very carefully into completely inappropriate places. The end result is part Grand Bouffe, part Abstract Expressionism. The smiling ceremonial quality of the rebellion is so disarming and so cleverly worked in with our own understandings of theatre etiquette that the audience victims are left laughing rather than humiliated. The humour relies also on our empathy with the performers who, in becoming so clearly and endearingly visible, make mockery of the established codes of service and their concordant entitlements and disenfranchisements. The performers leave the space with gusto, with an animalistic exuberance. At last, they have been seen.

This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission.
http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2011/10244

 

Chunky Move’s recent work has been characterised by dancers surrounded by the digital. In Mortal Engine and GLOW, Gideon Obarzanek paired the lyricism and vulnerability of the human form to the spectral bling of interactive video graphics. Connected is a lo-fi third chapter. Where the earlier pieces extrapolated on the human form with projected pixels and lasers, Connected does so with strings and wood in the form of a giant Reuben Margolin kinetic sculpture.

Entering the space, the first thing we experience is the dominating presence of this sculpture, resembling an incomplete loom of dangling warp. Two dancers soon enter and, as one tumbles across the floor to the fuzzy glitches and scratches of Oren Ambarchi’s score, the other begins carefully completing the sculpture, clicking magnetised shards of paper to connect the suspended threads into a grid of diamonds. The tumbling dancer soon becomes two, then three, then four, rolling and undulating across the floor but the deployment of numbers cannot conceal the niggling sense that we are being merely diverted while the main course is prepared.

When the paper grid is completed, the sculpture becomes a latent contraption of elegant beauty. And when the dancers’ bodies are then hooked up to the other ends of the threads, the image is made all the more wondrous. Like a diagram of light rays, the strings emerge from the human subjects, refract through a wooden lattice, bounce across the ceiling and drop down into the reflected image of the grid. In that moment, the connection of the human to the mechanical becomes both abstracted and essentialised.

The physical connection itself is not inherently revealing or even interesting. When a person rides a bicycle, they are connected to a mechanical contraption of exceptional elegance and their vertical force translated into horizontal displacement, but this relationship reveals nothing more than the strength of their quadriceps. The bicycle does not express. On the other hand, Margolin’s sculpture, in the frisson between its mathematical rigidity and kinetic fluidity creates the potential for a mechanical poetry. As the dancers shift their bodies forward and back, their movement is translated into the undulation and contortion of the grid. It becomes an infinitely variable abstract canvas for our associations—a bird’s wings, an open ocean, an enveloping cloak.

As such, the sculpture augments the expressive potential of the dancers by extending the reach of their neurons into new fibres (one imagines the ineluctable fun the dancers must have had in rehearsal, exploring the potential for expression and variation, like babies still conquering gross motor skills). When the sculpture is attached to an intimate duet between a man and a woman, the reflected shudders and waving of the grid seem to describe an elusive mathematical representation of love. When the duet evolves into sexual thrusting from the man, the grid responds with some unimpressed crinkling—a neat bathetic joke.

The grid as a reflection of the human form also makes manifest the very scientific thought that created it. It is an expression of the rational mind, a reminder that what we invent is inevitably in our own image, no matter how apparently disembodied. The programming of Connected in parallel with Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass, brings this aspect into clearer focus. Where In Glass treats reflection as a shady psychological force, Connected celebrates the altogether different shadiness of the scientific and mathematic by making it symbiotic with the corporeal.

However, just as this celebration begins, it grinds to a halt. The eponymous connectedness is dispelled when its potential is only beginning to be realised and, instead, the sculpture is unplugged from its human drivers and plugged into a wall socket. As an automaton it becomes even more mathematical and pure, losing none of its beauty, but the dancers become irrelevant (cast your mind to the poetic force of Stifters Dinge). To his credit, Obarzanek acknowledges this irrelevance with a surprising shift into semi-verbatim theatre that transports us very literally into the inner life of art museum security guards. There is perhaps a vein of social critique here, or for that matter an opportunity to emphasise the intricate beauty of the first half with the banality of this episode, but it feels instead that the promise of the first half is left underutilised and that Obarzanek is dancing around rather than with the concepts he provokes.

This article originally appeared RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission.
http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2011/10237

This year’s Adelaide Festival was awash with dialectical entanglements: cultures melding, disciplines merging, texts colluding. The artist takes the given and makes it new or, in some cases, newish.

vs macbeth

In Vs Macbeth, the given is William Shakespeare. And the new is danger. The Sydney Theatre Company’s Residents and Adelaide’s own Border Project teamed up for this new work that sought to reimagine Macbeth through the accidents that have made it the superstition-laden “Scottish play” that it is. The conceit is honourable. After all, the dangers of theatre can be very real. Performing it and witnessing it can be like walking along a cliff top backwards. Yet, this production never raises a solitary hair.

The problem is not in conception, but in realisation. From the outset, there is an undeniable whiff of Occupational Health and Safety, from the high visibility jackets to the yellow hazard tape. Yes, they mark the space as perilous, but they are also measures designed to dampen the unexpected and to ward off danger. If anything, they mark this theatre as eminently safe and flag in fluorescent clarity the fact that we should be prepared for things to go safely awry. When paintball guns are brought out for every death scene, so too is a cumbersome protective curtain of cyclone fencing meant only to protect the front row from pink shrapnel. Suspense? No, thanks.

The lack of tension in the space is only compounded by the bathos exerted by a series of interruptions—a missed entrance, a hurt hand. The sporadic nature of the interruptions suggests an unwillingness to commit wholly to the conceit, though it must be said that some of the actors commit themselves to the text beautifully. Indeed, it is the half-heartedness of the reimagining which is most problematic. The central melody here is still Shakespeare’s voice but the counterpoint is little more than an embarrassed suggestion of revolt, leaving even the erstwhile iconoclasts in the audience yearning for tights and doublets (the lycra-hungry had to head to Back to Back’s Food Court for their fix (RT 92, p42).

the sound and the fury

Fittingly, there wasn’t an inch of spandex to be seen at Elevator Repair Service’s staging of April Seventh, 1928, the first part of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and The Fury. The company is familiar to these shores. Last year’s six-hour Gatz [RT91, p43], saw them transpose the entirety of The Great Gatsby to the stage. In that work, the dialectical frisson between the forms of prose and theatre was a little elusive—the vastness of Fitzgerald’s text was inflected by the joy of reading it rather than the thrall of deconstructing it.

In The Sound and The Fury, a newer work, there is a sense that director John Collins and his ensemble are developing their modus operandi. Again the text is read from the novel but this time not its entirety. Again the text swirls about in a non-literal mise en scène but seeks now to represent the world of the novel rather than an anonymous backdrop. And again the narrative voice propels the text forward along with dialogue but this time it is complemented by projected surtitles that swing our attention in a different way to the written quality of the language. These changes, along with the more stylistically demanding source, serve to make this a far more complex and concentrated production than the sprawling, durational transparency of Gatz.

Remarkably, despite its complexity, the sense of theatrical storytelling and its grounding in prose is rarely lost. The disorienting carousel of actors and characters manifests the chronological jumps of Faulkner’s prose but also produces a fractured perspective, a kaleidoscopic confusion of glimpses into the Compson household that are as rowdy and shabby as the characters themselves. Amongst this kinetic frenzy of staging and the odd Woosterish dance interlude, Collins has wisely left room for moments of transcendent stasis, when the text, projected, is allowed to speak for itself. Yet these moments work not only because of the strength of Faulkner’s writing but also because of the strength of the theatrical text around it—Hegelian synthesis at its finest.

be your self

Across town at Her Majesty’s, Australian Dance Theatre was premiering its latest work, Be Your Self, an investigation of the body-mind compact inspired by the work of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. As director Garry Stewart notes in the program, Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature suggests that humans are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” This quotation is almost a pithy précis for the show itself.

It begins with a clinically white and vast stage. As a dancer slowly and meticulously begins to ripple movement up from the floor, through the feet and into the legs, another performer speaks an impressively detailed, thorough and ceaseless description of the neurobiological processes involved in what the dancer is doing. It is an inspired overture that deftly introduces the two disciplines that inform this work: science and dance. The former is taxonomical and exhaustive, the latter expressive and essential. If we were to think of them linguistically, science is the langue and dance the parole.

Unfortunately, the promise of the beginning is not maintained throughout. The piece itself sets out to be somehow analogous to the erratic nature of our human thoughts and physicality, but it feels instead like a physical illustration of the text we heard at the beginning without further development or consideration. The rhythms are punchy, the soundtrack is banging, the lights are in full wizardry mode but the result is a continuation of the clinically detached aesthetic of the start, without any of the discoveries that merit the scientific method, making for a surprisingly joyless experience.

Nevertheless, there is consolation to be had in the uber-athletic performances of the ensemble. The ADT dancers are surely some of the most muscular in the world and their broad shoulders and tendency towards explosive piston-like movement is displayed here to great effect. The set by New York architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is largely circumstantial until the very end, when a wide ramp set at 45 degrees is rolled to the front of the stage. As carefully designed animations are projected onto the surface of the ramp, isolated sections of bodies emerge through its weave, swimming in a protean liquid of colours and swirls. It is an assured finish and a striking image, but it is simply the final element in a “collection of different perceptions” that, combined, paint a very cold, distant and unwelcoming sense of what it is to be human.

ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (wrong skin)

A much warmer, though hardly uncomplicated vision of humanity was to be had at Her Majesty’s a fortnight later with the premiere of Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), which teamed Elcho Islands’ Chooky Dancers with director Nigel Jamieson.

The Chooky Dancers, like Justin Bieber, Susan Boyle and the Back Dorm Boys, came to fame on YouTube. In a dark gym hall they danced to a remix of Zorba the Greek in a unique hybrid of dance vocabularies—part Yolngu, part hip hop, part disco, part Busby Berkeley. The cultural provenance of their performance is breathtakingly complicated, but unadulterated joy and immediacy are the key to its appeal. Existing in a geographically isolated community that, thanks to modern telecommunications, can consume an entire world of creative influences, the Chooky Dancers made manifest postmodern intertextuality not as an ironic exercise in form but as a fundamental expression of self.

Jamieson’s attempt to build on the Chookies’ self-expression and foster it into a piece of theatrical storytelling is an unenviably difficult but worthy undertaking. The director chooses to use the complex Yolngu moiety laws as the basis for a forbidden-love story, with overt references to West Side Story along the way. This gives him a straightforward narrative hook on which to hang various dance sequences and video montages of life on Elcho Island, but it also imposes a stifling rhythm on proceedings and creates a strange tension: are the performers co-creators or merely the subjects of the work? Occasionally, it even reveals the technical shortcomings of the dancers when they are required to step out of their own style. At other times though, the show is a brilliant populist work that sheds light on an oft-overlooked part of our country, and the charisma and pleasure of the performers is disarming and contagious. Indeed, whether it be the Zorba or a riff on a Bollywood dance scene, the most engaging moments are those in which the mechanics of the theatre step out of the way and allow the Chookies to simply do their thing.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 4-5, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/97/9852

It is a truism to say that Hofesh Shechter’s dance pieces are as much about music as they are about choreography—in the double bill of Uprising and In Your Rooms, Shechter is credited with creating both. Indeed, his interest in their combination is hardly novel ground for dance, but his capacity to synthesise their impact on an audience together with a cinematic sense of imagery is the key to his popularity.

Uprising begins with a steady slightly metallic beat, a bank of spotlights tilted towards us and haze swarming portentously across the empty stage. From somewhere behind the lights emerge seven male dancers heading downstage with a determined gait. The air is menacing but Shechter subverts the expected and just as the men can go no further, they arrest their charge by lifting a leg to their other knee and holding themselves in a sweetly balletic stance. The line is ordered and controlled—a display of technical acumen certainly—but the image it presents is only a whisper away from collapse. These men are vulnerable in their balancing act.

As the beat continues to drive on, the men slide out of formation looking dejected, defeated even. Shechter reportedly created Uprising in response to the 2006 riots in Paris, though thematically it feels more like a response to the banlieue riots of 2005, which were more palpably and brutally linked to the ennui of disaffected young men. However, to see Uprising as a political statement is problematic. The real source material is testosterone and, as it does in life, it peaks at puberty. Uprising is less an investigation of men and militant outrage than it is a celebratory omnibus of adolescence. Yes, the dancers show us forms of violence, rebellion and manhood, but they are mock displays, the simulated games of boys testing their own limits and not to be taken too seriously—the pants are khaki but the label is American Apparel.

The music is a propulsive assemblage of percussion that whips the choreography along rather than merely accompanying it. In the words of one of the dancers, Chris Evans, Shechter “liberates the dancers from chasing a meaning around” by using music to set the tone. The result is a physical language that, in being both persistent and simple in its intention, is remarkably legible without dipping too often into literalism. The dancers respond with powerful abandon: throwing their arms back as they run head down, breaking formation in fits of individualism, using their hands to slink across stage like simians, wrestling and caressing. Throughout, flashes of popular dance genres emerge—the negation of the lower body typical of breakdance, the bopping kick of skank—as does the unmistakable urban dubstep of Vex’d with their track Thunder.

With a barren stage and a highly structured beat, Shechter has to find both engaging imagery and fluidity in the bodies on stage. Lee Curran’s sharply focussed spotlights provide pools of visibility that the dancers slide in and out of. Trios and duos flicker past each other in discreet frames like spatial cross-dissolves. When dancers are shrouded in darkness one feels that they have not exited so much as briefly moved out of frame. And when Shechter has all seven dancers working in unison, he is amplifying the human form as a cinematographer might do with a close up. The result is spare but extremely beautiful.

Uprising finishes with a spurt of bathetic triumphalism. The men construct a limp flag-waving human pyramid equal parts French Revolution, Soviet agitprop and summer camp. In some respects, the finale makes sense as the antithesis of the opening image—asymmetrical and multi-tiered rather than a strict line. But it also feels like a cheap shot. The preceding dance has already done the work of dismantling order and control, but rather than living up to or even coveting the title of Uprising, Shechter shies away from revolution and delivers a safe implication of delinquent folly.

A similar whiff of shyness was sensed next door at Look Mummy I’m Dancing, written and performed by Belgium’s first transsexual Vanessa (Van Durme). Adapted from her own book of the same name, the show is a sort of staged Bildungsroman that tells the story of Vanessa’s transformation from a troubled boy into a troubled woman.

For a show based on a very fundamental questioning of gender, Look Mummy I’m Dancing manages to shy away from questioning traditional gender concepts. Vanessa begins her monologue with a story of a couple at a checkout line. In both subject matter and delivery it feels like the anecdote of a stand-up comic pointing out the banal universal tropes of married life for us to both recognise and find funny. One expects this cliché of binary gender absolutes to then be undercut by the subsequent story. Yet, save for a few moments of inner conflict, the tone never really shifts. The writing constantly finds ways of being relatable, hackneyed, earnest and predictable.

Occasionally, often in moments of dark, visceral humour, a real theatrical tension is evoked between Vanessa’s delicate aspirations and the staggering pitfalls of her life. And one might argue that it is not her role to do anything but tell her own personal story, rather than speak to the conceptual or the societal. However, too often, the narrative metes out to incidental players the same one-dimensional characterisations that are supposedly the bane of Vanessa’s own existence and skirts across stories with nary a sideways glance at insight.

A similar problem befalls Anna Tregloan’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Taking the art of public transport eavesdropping and mashing it with the Dadaist penchant for collage, Tregloan has shaped a piece of theatre out of verbatim transcripts of one-sided conversations on trains. The concept itself is cheekily promising, with non sequitur humour and pathos possible at every turn, but the various components never quite slot together.

Tregloan takes advantage of the Meat Market’s extraordinary depth by creating a train carriage out of rows of chairs but, in spite of her design credentials, the set is otherwise underdeveloped and lacking in detail. Tregloan’s 2007 work, BLACK, with its refractive centre of characters, was as much a spatial installation as it was a performance, and that level of attentiveness to the audience’s relation to space was sorely missed in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. The unhindered distances around the performers created an unfocused, centrifugal effect that compounded the fractured nature of the narratives, leaving the audience to forage for meaning from afar.

Wrapping up many people’s Festival experience this year was Le Salon from the Belgian company Peeping Tom. Partly borne out of the Belgian powerhouses Ballets C de la B and Needcompany, Peeping Tom are a collective of artists orbiting around the central creative partnership of dancers Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier. Each of the performers, including a mezzo-soprano and an actor, bring their own idiosyncratic talents and foibles to bear. This, combined with the very real emotional relationship shared by Carrizo and Chartier, creates an onstage chemistry not dissimilar to that of an amiably dysfunctional family—sometimes pulling in very different directions but inextricably rooted in the same mire of history, experience and artistic heredity.

Le Salon is the middle section in a trilogy of work that loosely follows a family through a cycle of generation and degeneration. The gently decaying wood panelling of the set is at once an allusion to a bourgeois grandeur of the past and a presaging of the characters’ internal declines. With only a sparse use of text, the theatre, humour and intelligence of the piece is in the bodies and the music. And both, while brimming with technical mastery, are also able to seethe with the signs of downfall. Though at times it threatens to undermine itself with overplaying, Le Salon beautifully delivers what it sets out to do—to intimately make flesh the fear of loss, the fear of death and the fear of not noticing it arrive.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 94, December-January, 2009-2010, page 4, and is reproduced with permission.
http://realtimearts.net/article/issue94/9630

Phillip Adams’ choreography sometimes repeats a physical action until it achieves the transcendent extremity of a ritual. By taking on the subject matter of mass hysteria and apocalyptic cults, where the held breath of expectation is clothed in mantras and cyclical behaviours, he has found a fitting underpinning.

In BalletLab’s 2007 Brindabella, the piece was literally bisected by four dancers jogging in near-unison around the stage. It went on for far longer than one expected and, in doing so, it suspended the audience from any act of judgment or any desire to draw literal meaning. It was a relatively unadorned pause in between more elaborate worlds on either side. It acted as an enforced threshold, the thud of footfalls was mesmeric and the circling bodies were hypnotising. We were being lulled into a different state.

In Miracle, it’s all about different states—the hallucinatory, the delusional, the ecstatic, the postmortem. We start in a state of quiet dislocation. The space is filled with brightly lit haze, creating an obscuring curtain of white. As the haze fades, four figures are revealed far back on the stage. They stand in a line, in loose-fitting robes: orange, yellow, blue, green. The costumes, by fashion designer Toni Maticevski, are a confectioner’s riff on tie-dye.

The dancers retain their stance and their silence for a long, enticing moment. After all, when you are waiting for the end of the world, anticipation is the key. Then, suddenly, and with great force, the sky opens up and peals of sound rush forward along with the dancers. Their bodies carve out a diagonal sweep and the speakers crush out an orchestrated wall of strings, voices and beats. Holding hands, the dancers retrace their steps, their mouths agape with cries, and they cross forward and back again and again until their efforts drive them into prostration. The effect of such intensity could be galling, eviscerating or transformative but the emptiness of the stage, marked simply by a square of grey, and the swathes of movement suggest an animated Franz Kline painting: urgent and physical, but safely contained on a canvas.

In a question and answer session after the show, Adams felt that this particular run of Miracle had been “too cosy, too comfortable” for the performers. He stressed the importance of the hysteria being experienced, not merely represented. Yet, he also spoke of his desire to achieve a “cinematic” effect. Perhaps he meant something else with this statement, but it seemed at times that the performers were fully enveloped by the experience, yet in the vast reaches of the Meat Market they were held at a projected distance from us that was neither threatening, nor fully engaging—we were invited to watch them but not to feel like one of them. We witnessed hysteria and ecstasy, but were never transported to that state ourselves.

Hysteria and performing arts are hardly strange bedfellows. The success of a theatrical experience usually demands a communal suspension of disbelief, arguably an act of mass hysteria. Thus, in making the experience of hysteria the sine qua non of Miracle, Adams binds the success of his concept and choreography to the success of its mass reception.

Nevertheless, even on a “cosy” night when the fever doesn’t quite set in, the extraordinariness of Miracle’s components is apparent. The stunning score is a joint creation by David Chisholm and Myles Mumford. They mix and process a range of diegetic and recorded sources live for every performance, in what they describe as a “plunderphonic” composition. In the large, blank space, the multiple speakers cut through the air giving shape to the void.

The performances, despite Adams’ qualifications, display a rare mix of sensitivity and visceral dedication. BalletLab’s work has increasingly tilted towards the second part of its name and the exploratory nature of experimentation requires a very different specificity to that of ballet. Like Deborah Hay’s company of dancers in the recently toured If I Sing to You, the dancers in Miracle are constantly aware of the whole and not just themselves. The result is an apparent freedom of form, an organic flow of actions and reactions that feel autonomous rather than directed.

This performative freedom and the permutations that result suggest the centrifugal whirling of a dervish. From the original point of stillness and silence, Adams spins Miracle into sound and fury, we pass whirling rag balls and extension cables, we circle bullhorns and clogs until, in a final astonishing image, having exited Earth’s gravitational pull, Miracle hovers weightlessly in a moment of divine suspension.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 93, October – November, 2009, page 37, and is reproduced with permission.
http://realtimearts.net/article/issue93/9593

Untrained

The titles of Lucy Guerin’s recent works have been marked by clarity and transparency, even literalness. Structure and Sadness dealt with the aftermath of grief caused by the West Gate bridge collapse. Melt was a duet for two water molecules that move from ice through to steam. Corridor limited itself to a long traverse stage and took a corridor scene from Kafka as its inspiration. And now Untrained juxtaposes two artists trained as dancers with two artists untrained as dancers.

Contrast these examples with the titular and choreographic opacity of Shelley Lasica’s Vianne and there would appear to be nothing hidden in Guerin’s world, nothing that is so mysterious that it cannot be elucidated in a simple, perfectly decipherable title. For her critics, this is a cause for frustration: her works can be seen as the physical equivalent of begging the question in rhetoric, where the proposition assumes its own truth before being argued. In other words, is the dance redundant once you read the program notes?

Yet, aside from the inherent value judgements involved in meriting metaphor over literalness, describing Guerin’s dance as redundant is to deny its capacity to transcend the admittedly literal text that tries to encapsulate it. Guerin is not given to ornateness in her language but her sensibility for the human form is far from plain—the duets across her body of work are remarkable in their mesmerising intimacy, their detail and their capacity to enliven the space between the dancers as much as they animate the bodies themselves. Moreover, by starting with such conceptual distillation, Guerin’s work emerges from a kind of purity, with every subsequent extrapolation seeming to fit and flow on perfectly from the last.

Indeed, it is a questioning of purity that lies at the heart of Untrained. The title is easily decipherable, yes, but what is it to be untrained? Is the untrained body pure in its movement—unfettered by the conditioning of choreography and exercises? Or is it the trained body, in its refinement and exactitude, that achieves purity by sublimation? Guerin is certainly not looking for an easy solution to this dialectic. She is interested in what it does to us as an audience and to the performers themselves to see these questions made manifest by exploring the continuum from pure naivety to pure technique.

Her staging of Untrained maintains this notion of purity. The set is nothing more than a grey playing square marked out by broad white lines. It is a clever delimiter, its form suggestive of a playground ball court or a boxing ring—both stages perhaps but ones not restricted to the arts. The performers never leave our sight, yet, with just one exception, only when they enter this square are they viewed. This is no geometrical sleight of hand. What we are witnessing is an experiment where we are the lab technicians and this square our Petri dish. By placing contrasting physical presences in the same space one after another, Guerin provides us with a microscope through which to examine the idiosyncrasies, the likenesses, the differentiators and the foibles of four bodies in motion.

The identities of these four bodies are important to note. Byron Perry and Antony Hamilton are two wunderkinder of the Melbourne dance scene. Not only are they ubiquitous presences in the works of Lucy Guerin Inc and Chunky Move, but they are also celebrated choreographers and visual artists. Their untrained co-performers are Simon Obarzanek and Ross Coulter, who are both visual artists. So, as it happens, all are men and all are visual artists.

To begin with, the performers present themselves to the audience one at a time by standing in the centre of the square for a few seconds, doing nothing. They have been asked to be neutral. However, each of them carries a stamp of personality and of habit, and we see this. From this starting point, Guerin uses a succession of provocations to tease out different performative languages: sing a song, be a cat that gets electrocuted, copy your partner. At times, the audience laughs at the ineptitude of the untrained. At times, they laugh at the hubris of the trained. As the work progresses, the laughs dissipate and the analytical eye is no longer restricted to the audience — the performers themselves begin to reflect on how they compare with the others and, vitally, are asked to speak to their own image.

This article originally appeared in print and online for RealTime Dance Massive Special, March 2009, and is reproduced with permission.
http://www.realtimearts.net/feature_contents/Dance_Massive

The Hong Kong Arts Festival began as a private initiative in 1973. One year later, in a moment of belated British pragmatism, Chinese was finally recognised as an official language by the colonial administrators, though the Arts Festival cannot necessarily be held responsible. So, in this part of the world, millions of people were taking a first step out from the shadow of Empire. Move across the Pacific and one year further on, to 1975, and the Wooster Group stages its first production in New York.

Now, as part of the Hong Kong Festival’s 37th iteration, the Wooster Group has dusted off its rendering of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones for another outing. Originally conceived in 1993, this production is the culmination of the Wooster Group’s deconstruction of blackface. Of course, there have been (and there still are) some observers who consider it merely a reconstruction of blackface. But, back in 1981, before The Emperor Jones was even conceived, the company produced Route 1 & 9, the first part of The Road to Immortality trilogy. Route 1 & 9 was welcomed by a gale of controversy, partly because of its blistering desecration of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town but largely because of the use of blackface in this desecration. The calls of racism and insensitivity reached the bureaucratic halls of the New York State Council on the Arts, which severely cut the Wooster Group’s funding as a result, citing “harsh and caricatured portrayals of a racial minority.”

The director of these productions, indeed the director of all Wooster Group productions, is Elizabeth LeCompte. Grey-haired, with lucid, dark-green eyes, LeCompte has a compelling demeanour that fuses a cutting intelligence with unassuming blitheness. When she is asked a redundant question that presupposes her answer, she sees it for what it is and is curt. When asked about her upcoming work, she turns to her producer, Cynthia Hedstrom, for support or deliberately undermines herself with humour. Yet she also shows an unerring confidence in the scope of her imagination and her ability as a theatre maker when she says, of her upcoming adaptation of Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams, that she is inventing a “completely new form of naturalism.” LeCompte sees every performance of every Wooster Group show in order to take notes and gauge the audience response, but she claims to be utterly disinterested in comparing her work to that of other theatre makers, preferring to watch films, musicals and “lots of television.” This ability to focus her attention on her own work combined with her steadfast sense of artistic vision and purpose might explain why, notwithstanding the volume of criticism, the Wooster Group continued its use of blackface in not just one but three separate shows.

Amidst all this offstage politics, the visual aesthetic that most clearly infuses The Emperor Jones is that of Japanese Noh theatre. One sees it in the costuming and in the gestural language of the performers. Also, one sees it in the makeup. The character of Henry Smithers, a British trader, appears in Noh-inspired whiteface alongside Brutus Jones’s blackface. It is a deliberate counterpoint that manages to underline the use of blackface while simultaneously shifting the cultural reference points with which we view it. In other words, what the Wooster Group have done with blackface is to make it a performative, rather than a pejorative, mask.

Yet, beyond any theatrical coup de grâce that one might ascribe to this deconstructive effort, the reason for LeCompte’s initial interest in staging The Emperor Jones is less grand, though no less valid. Kate Valk, the actress who plays Jones, had appeared in blackface in previous Wooster Group productions and, in LeCompte’s words, was “developing a voice” that LeCompte thought was worth exploring—O’Neill’s text provided the perfect vehicle for a more detailed outing. For Valk, the opportunity to play behind the mask of blackface is an opportunity to be liberated as an actor, to be freed from the psychological barriers of the self and, as a result, to be fully present in the immediacy of the stage environment. Valk explains this by referring to the “two-step process of denial” that wearing the mask entails. First of all, the mask allows the performer to deny their own subjective psychological presence. Second, in then denying that the mask itself exists, the performer is able to fully disassociate their self from the situation and inhabit the stage as an other.

As with the visual aesthetic of the show, Valk’s investigation of masks is indebted to the Noh tradition. Indeed, there are videotapes of Noh theatre that play on a loop on screens that face the actors—Valk is given to watching them as a point of focus in what is, at times, a solitary stage existence and she relishes that she can randomly incorporate gestures from the videos in her performance as a way of keeping things fresh, all without the audience’s knowledge. However, to suggest that the entire show is an ode to Noh would be an unfortunate feat of elision. The Wooster Group work so meticulously on their productions and from so many angles that their work defies such a reductive suggestion of provenance. The choreography for various dance interludes is snatched from Hawaiian folk dances; the sound design draws on cartoon sound effects; the video screens present distorted low resolution images that create a deliberately damaged but exacting accompaniment to the live action.

Somehow, in all this feeding on references, LeCompte’s team of collaborators find a distinct and unique theatrical language that, like herself, has two complimentary aspects: one rapier sharp, the other playfully obtuse. The red flyswatter that almost becomes an Oriental fan, the incongruous soccer shin pads, and the stage assistant that almost becomes a character all create a slightly tattered sensibility and remind us of the theatremaking. On the other hand, the technological integration, the dynamics of the show and the performances by Valk and, on alternate nights, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, are far from tattered.

Near the beginning of the show, Valk sits in an old office chair in the centre of the space, her costume is a ragged riff on a kimono, she holds a microphone on a black stick and wields it as naturally as one of her own limbs, or as jauntily as a cane. The whites of her eyes, luminous within the thick mask of blackface, dart and roll, her lips and teeth stretch their moorings as she plunges her voice into a growling baritone. Valk’s virtuosity is astonishing and powerful. She is a picture of both precise stylisation and humanity limited by stylisation. The blackface that, on the one hand, causes furore and, on the other, liberates the actor is more than the sum of its parts. By casting a white woman in blackface, who so accurately, yet so artificially, recreates the stereotypical idiom and mannerisms of a black man, we see the performative nature of the character himself—a man unable to escape the hateful script dealt to him by a history of slavery, subjugation and segregation.

Across the Hong Kong harbour, two weeks later, Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche shared the stage in their self-devised dance duet In-I. To say that Binoche is not renowned for her dancing prowess might imply a dry reproach for a foolish endeavour. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it is exactly because she is not an accomplished dancer that this show even exists.

In-I sits in that realm of contemporary dance theatre often occupied by Jérôme Bel (Pichet Klunchun and Myself) and, newly, Lucy Guerin (Untrained). It is not the tanztheater of Pina Bausch or Meryl Tankard, but rather a dialogic medium that investigates the gap between the physically articulate and the physically inarticulate by juxtaposing them on stage. Bel achieves this through a simple conversation, Guerin achieves this through follow-the-leader games, but In-I tries a more unwieldy and less formally clarified combination of choreography and text that butt up against each other but rarely intersect.

Binoche initiated the project after seeing one of Khan’s dance pieces. It is a credit to Binoche as an artist that she so forthrightly ventures into unknown territory, but there is a sense that Khan has not fully met her enthusiasm with his own. Though Binoche does not quite achieve the extension and line that one takes for granted in a trained dancer, she executes the choreography with unceasing energy and alacrity, even as the sweat pours down her face and her hair becomes a tousled mop that defies her film star credentials. On the other hand, Khan is a performer of stoic restraint and economy, whose face is a stern glaze from start to finish. When Binoche’s arms open outwards, they do so to welcome something in with generosity. When Khan extends his, they seem to deflect and defend. Certainly, there is something of the feminine/masculine binary at work here, but Binoche’s presence is more engaged, more fluent, where Khan’s is determinedly one-note.

In the end, In-I is, as its eponymous pronoun suggests, less successful as a duet than it is as an insight into two very different artistic talents. The one liberated by exploration, the other troubled by the unknown.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 90, April-May, 2009, page 6, and is reproduced with permission. http://realtimearts.net/article/issue90/9393

The Band’s Visit begins with a gently absurd level of theatricality. Not the kind of camp histrionics that Baz Luhrmann starts his movies with, but rather the stylised simplicity of Akira Kurosawa or Roy Andersson. In the opening shots, cleaners at the airport walk across the frame from edge to edge, creating an implicit proscenium arch, and the palette is chilled to a pale blue that matches the uniforms of the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, the eponymous musical outfit, who have travelled from Egypt to Israel to perform at the inauguration of an Arab Culture Centre.

The band is led by the pursed lips and imposing nose of Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), whose pride is made manifest in his moustache. With the most elementary of phonetic mistakes, Tawfiq and his orchestra end up in one of those villages of parched concrete banality that dot the deserts from Tripoli to Samarkand. There is nothing for the band to do but idle away the hours until the next bus; a conceit that gives writer-director Eran Kolirin the opportunity to patiently play with a microcosm of Arab-Israeli relations.

In an interview included on this edition of the DVD, Kolirin explains that the aesthetic of the film emerged from an imagined moment of a uniformed, disciplined Arab man singing a plangent song, unaccompanied by instruments or fanfare — a carapace surrounding a palpitating soul. It is a stirring image and one that has inspired a beautifully crafted and tender film whose humour and strict cinematic vocabulary save it from any charge of self-indulgence or cute exoticism.


Sometimes curation is nothing more than serendipity and sometimes serendipity bears all the hallmarks of curation. This month in Melbourne, the stars have aligned and the fortunate populous has the opportunity to see an exhibition (Intimacy) and a film (Hunger) that in their symbiosis would make a truly excellent day-night double bill.

The provenance of filmmakers is like a timeline of cultural influence: they came from the ranks of theatre, then they cut their teeth in television, lately it’s been the turn of MTV darlings, but now it’s all about video artists. Hunger is the first feature film by the Turner Prize-winning video artist Steve McQueen. And if his debut is any indication, cinema’s pantheon might have to make room for a second coming of that legendary name. Hunger is terrifying, intelligent and thrillingly well-made. It charts the violence and suffering of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the chill corridors of the Maze prison as IRA inmates stage passive protests against their gaolers. The issue at stake for the prisoners is their status. Having fought for their self-determination, they now protest at being labelled criminals instead of political prisoners. Inside and out, it is a matter of identity and dignity. In the name of these abstract notions, the prisoners deny themselves the concrete material of human rights: clothing, hygiene and, eventually, food.

The first half of the film is a largely wordless mapping of the prison terrain. Motifs are established, repeated and transmuted, like the building of a visual symphony that ends with an inevitable but nevertheless breathtaking cymbal crash. Given his background, McQueen’s acute cinematographic sensibility in all this is hardly surprising, but what is remarkable is the deftness of the rhythms and the unflinching sweep of the narrative. It is not relentlessly harrowing, there are moments of inspired pause for something peculiar or idiosyncratic-a fly at a window, the tears of a young officer, or op art in faeces-but it never loses its momentum either. In the wake of this horizontal march of violence, comes a scene of extraordinary dialectical depth and clarity, a 20 minute scene with only one cut and no more movement than is required to smoke a cigarette to its death. Hunger‘s first act is so redolent with determined action and the pain of ingrained hatred that the characters take on a mythological scale. This second act, a conversation between a terrorist and his priest, serves as the counterpunch of psychology.

Meanwhile, in Southbank, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) has an exhibition entitled Intimacy. Included in the collection is a Steve McQueen video work that amuses itself with the sculptural posturing of African wrestlers but, for me, the most intimate of works and the most inspiring is right at the end, tucked behind a warning for those not yet 18-a slideshow by the American photographer Nan Goldin. These photographs of couples at their most private moments were themselves not new to me, but this display of them, complete with the satisfying whack of the projector and the theonostalgialogical soundtrack by Björk was completely mesmerising. Sophie Calle and Louise Bourgeois (still kicking at age 96) occupy the rooms preceding Goldin’s and don’t neglect Jesper Just’s hilarious ode to Roy Orbison.

Hunger opened November 6. Intimacy runs until November 30 (admission is free).

Purgatorio

Purgatory is a temporal noun. There are no clocks in the Inferno or in Paradise—there is no time in eternity. But Purgatory is immanently ephemeral. At least, that’s how Dante would have it. Purgatory is also theatre. It is a morality play writ large, where the actors are sinners and the curtain call is the expurgation of sin.

Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Purgatorio, commissioned by the Festival d’Avignon, begins with a quotidian scene of bourgeois domesticity. The set is an expansive, hyperrealist snapshot of refined 1970s living—dark wood, muted tones, recessed lighting. In it, a boy dangles his feet at a table and a woman washes dishes. It is, by every appearance, a literal kitchen-sink drama that we are witnessing. But Castellucci establishes these references, these codes of theatrical familiarity only to derail our expectations. Like Michael Haneke in The Seventh Continent, Castellucci begins by feeding us these images of habit without the anchors of narrative or character. The mundane actions and props of life are thereby removed from their context and float in front of us as anonymous signifiers, suggesting the illusiveness of this existence. Purgatory is, after all, theatre–the replaying, in real time, of a misjudged life.

The woman, a screen tells us, is called “First Star”; the boy is called “Second Star”. When they speak to each other, a screen presents their words just before the actors vocalise them and the dialogue is drawn out by silences, as though the characters were not so much conversing but simply passing the time. And time does pass. The first act of Purgatorio is a blatant invocation of time as punishment—weary festival-goers would have been forgiven for resting their eyes a little. The discrepancy in timing between the surtitles and the text is no technical hitch, but rather a deliberate ploy to disrupt the action by anticipating it with text. Castellucci thereby de-energises the dramatic tension, distances the characters from one another and asserts a painterly torpor on the space. This inertia has strange effects, particularly on time, the measurement of which is always a measure of movement. With no reference points of action, the audience’s sense of time is dislodged and what might have been only twenty minutes feels instead like an hour.

With all this inaction, what does the audience desire at this point, what does it expect? It wants a change and it expects action. Castellucci delivers. Having apparently returned from a day at the office, a man (“Third Star”) has entered the domestic scene. He does not touch the food his wife presents him with, but dons a cowboy hat and takes his young son upstairs. The stage is emptied of actors but slowly, discomfortingly one hears the brute grunts of the father and the weeping pain of the son from offstage. The audience has been given the drama and action they craved in the form of a torturous and prolonged rape. So, the initial stretching of the audience’s patience is not done merely to punish but also to disturb. Just as sinners would pass through the seven stages of Purgatory to be cleansed, Castellucci puts us through these early tests of our own theatrical sins of expectation.

Having, at first, exasperated the audience and having then slapped them in the face with their own hand, Castellucci changes gears once more. The father eventually returns to the stage in a somewhat dishevelled manner and is joined soon after by the boy, who bears no tangible sign of mistreatment. Strangely, the boy consoles the man with the words, “Ne t’inquiète pas, tout est fini.” (“Don’t worry, it’s all over.”) It acts as a pardoning and, thus, an inversion of the power structure we expect.

This inversion is echoed in the final act, when two different actors come on in the costumes of the father and son. The father is now a shorter, slighter man and played by an actor (Juri Roverato) who suffers from severe spastic tetraplegia. On the other hand, the boy is now a towering two metres tall. The father begins a sort of fitful dance that the son echoes until his body is totally at the mercy of the convulsions. In front of this action, a clear glass circle hangs spinning as black paint is squirted onto its surface by automated jets. The resulting web of interweaving spirals on the glass is beautiful to the point of distraction, but beneath the blackened circle that hovers in the space, the son continues to unceasingly jar his body against the floor. A realisation soon dawns: it’s not all over after all.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 87, October-November, 2008, page 4, and is reproduced with permission.

In Antony Hamilton’s debut full-length work, even the title, Blazeblue Oneline, has a cheekily obscure but rhythmically exact quality. The tone is vigorous and brash, masculine but childlike and when mysteriousness creeps in, it isn’t long before things pop back into multicoloured joy.

Hamilton’s concept for the piece began with a desire to meld dance with visual art. It was, for him, a natural extension of two art forms that he has pursued side by side for years. Like the action painters of the 1940s and 50s, Hamilton is fascinated by the gestural implications of visual art. But in contrast to the likes of De Kooning, he is also interested in working in the opposite direction, starting with a picture and moving towards an action.

The focal point of the visuals in Blazeblue Oneline is graffiti. But rather than being a show about graffiti, Hamilton uses its aesthetic mainly as a cohesive agent for a panoply of set pieces. As with Shaun Parker’s debut, This Show is About People, there is a sense of directorial excitability in the sheer eclecticism of Hamilton’s work. Offered the gamut of time and space he has responded by creating a piece that flies with exuberance in any number of directions yet retains a tautness that keeps it from becoming indulgent or insubstantial.

The show starts with a remarkable sound and light overture that teams Luke Smiles’ rumbling drum’n’bass with Bluebottle’s perfectly timed splinters of light—revealing the architecture of the Meat Markets with a menacing sense of anticipation. It is an opening with all the thumping import of a call to arms and plants us firmly in an urban culture of jagged beats and solid walls.

Onto the stage steps a lone man. Secreted under a hoodie and facing away from us, he stands still, peering at the white wall in front of him. It is the artist facing a blank canvas, his nature eventually revealed to us only in the blue tags he swiftly marks on the set. Before we can settle in to the sombre oddness of it all, Hamilton’s whimsy emerges with an irreverent pas de deux for two up-turned cardboard boxes. Their movements, expertly steered by concealed dancers, have all the bounce and geometry of graffiti while also seeming to reference everything from Busby Berkeley to Tetris.

Hamilton, it would appear, isn’t going to take things too seriously and the audience giggles with delight when he and Smiles appear in rave-ready fluorescent leisure suits. They stand together, stillness interspersed with flurries of movement that match the off-centre choppiness of the grimy beats playing around them. The boisterous self-effacing mischievousness continues with an inspired segment of one-upmanship involving sheets of aluminium foil. Hamilton even throws in over-sized comic-book cut-outs, a laser sequence and a cardboard-clad Stuart Shugg as a Transformer figurine. It’s a melange that befits a boy’s bedroom: revelling in games and competition, in technology and self-expression.

Through all this playfulness, Blazeblue Oneline maintains the conceptual thread of integrating dance with visual art. Through the course of the show the set moves from a shiny white box to a surface carved up with looping curls and dripping angles. With sprays and markers, the dancers leave behind them a representation of action on the wall. At one point, Smiles and Hamilton sketch an intricately mirrored motif on the floor before teaming up to finish the job like a human inkjet printer.

Working in tandem with these visual manifestations of action, the show also extracts the lines and rhythms of its dance from what we see. Whether it is simply the preparatory shaking of an aerosol can writ large in the body, or the repeated outlining of a gesture, Hamilton’s choreography bears the hallmarks of graffiti. There is also a subtle recurrence of two-dimensional objects, such as cardboard, being given three-dimensional life and movement by the dancers. It is as though the flatness of visual art’s canvas is itself being reconstructed and reconfigured into the dynamic physical nature of dance.

Blazeblue Oneline offers up an appetising sense of what Hamilton will bring to his future works. It is clear that his personal capacity for expression sits comfortably with the creative forces he has gathered around him. The integration of music, lights and dance is almost seamless, with the distinct character of Hamilton’s vision always remaining clear. It is energetic, witty and charismatic. It is the work of a young choreographer who is clearly happy to play and the audience are more than happy to play along.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 85, June-July, 2008, page 35, and is reproduced with permission.

Michael Haneke is not a facile filmmaker, so one has to wonder why he bothered remaking his fourth feature film some ten years later with nary a change in sight. As it turns out, the reason is facile. The original Funny Games was a disturbing Teutonic take on Hollywood-style violence. But apparently not enough Americans got to see it–distributors were presumably scared off by the subtitles and lack of redemption–so now they’ve mixed in some Yank-friendly stars (Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt and Tim Roth).

If you can find a film reviewer who hasn’t seen the original, they’re arguably not a very thorough film reviewer, but they might offer an insight into this new film that the rest of us can’t. The shadow of the past is too dark to allow anything but negative feelings towards the film. It feels outdated, exploitative of its actors and contemptuous of its audience. But, as I noted in my review of the original, the toying with our expectations and the surprise of the plot are vital–something clearly lacking in a reviewing. If you are new to Funny Games, judge for yourself, but if you have been there before, don’t bother again.

Philippe Petit is a tightrope walker and juggler, a man of stunts and tricks. He is also a man imbued with a sense of the poetic that can be spellbinding. Man on Wire is a documentary film that traces how this impish French circus artist managed to walk across a cable strung between the twin towers of the Manhattan World Trade Centre back in 1974. It is also a disarmingly frank and moving portrait of the friends who got him there.

There is something of the divine in Petit’s nature. From the magic of his craft to the single-minded tenacity with which he turns his dreams into reality, Petit draws in disciples mesmerised by his impetuous, death-defying talents. He is a man who lives “every day as a work of art” and his ambition and audacity are extraordinary and uncompromising.

Petit’s feat is to conquer the void, to stand in empty space for the pleasure of its simplicity and to revel in this profound transcendence of psychology as well as the rules of nature. The most telling description of the event comes from file footage of a New York police officer who, delivering answers to a press conference, is clearly still enraptured by the beauty of what he witnessed.

But Petit’s ascendance comes at a cost, not to him but to his friends. In achieving his dream and rebuffing his own mortality, something snaps in his humanity. The fiction becomes reality, the artwork is completed and Petit leaves behind his friends as easily as a painter might abandon an easel.

Georgia is in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, so this DVD release is something of a timely salve. It is by no means a jolly romp through the Caucuses, but its touching sense of humane irony lifts the spirits rather than crushing them underfoot. Writer/director Julie Bertuccelli worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski on Three Colours: Blue and one senses that influence in the gentle rhythms and wry whimsy of the storytelling.

The film is set in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where three generations of females live together in a small apartment. There’s no hot water but there are shelves upon shelves of French literature and the women live in a Chekhovian state of longing for Paris. The granddaughter reads out Proust as she massages her grandmother’s swollen feet but the real link to France, and the reason for the title, are the letters that come from the absent son, Otar, who has emigrated there.

When news of Otar’s death reaches home, the information is kept secret from his mother, in the fear that the heartbreak would be too much for her. The resulting subterfuge on the part of family and friends is not so much a tool for creating dramatic suspense, but rather a path along which the film can explore the relationships between the women. It is also the event that upsets their quiet stasis and propels them into action, a sure sign of impending turmoil, if not tragedy.

Film, the artistic medium that best conjures up the illusion of effortless globe-trotting is, in this case, used as a simple reminder that some gaps are impossible to traverse: the distance between homes, the distance between life and death, the distance between two glass walls.

It's a Free World

Ken Loach’s latest is a simple social realist film in a style not much different to what Vittorio De Sica was pulling out sixty years ago. The conflict is moral and economic, the characters humble but not necessarily noble. It is Loach’s gift for storytelling and rhythm that allow this well-run formula to evade cliché or po-faced politics. Our protagonist, Angie (Kierston Wareing), slides down the slippery pole of free market economics into an ethical landscape devoid of reference points. Along the way, we follow her logic, question her audacity and try to reproach her actions. The film is chilling in the apparent inevitability of its course, yet the twists and turns, while remaining utterly plausible, never become predictable. Only at the end, the very end, does Loach give us pause for breath, a moment’s hesitation in Angie’s sharp demeanour that lets us realise, with the mild mention of a name, how far down we have gone.

When people think of Swedish cinema they tend, depending on their tendencies, to think either of steamy sauna porn or the collected works of the recently departed Ingmar Bergman. But between these opposite poles of cinematic expression lie a whole range of movies that range from the compelling tragedies of Lukas Moodysson to the sweet comedies of Colin Nutley. Yet foreign-language genre films don’t usually make their ways onto our screens so Exit is in rather rare company. Starring the cheekbones-from-hell of Mads Mikkelsen, this film rips across a blistering 97 minutes of twisting plot and run-n-punch action. In a Fugitive-like set up, Thomas (Mikkelsen) has to clear his name by escaping from custody and dispatching the real villain himself. Along the way are more speedboats than I thought any family would need, thick-necked Arab and Danish thugs, secret compartments and a fiery climax. It aint The Seventh Seal and it aint Uppsala Girls Go Crazy but it is Swedish, it is thrilling and even if you caught it at MIFF last year, the DVD is worth grabbing.

How does the authenticity of a story affect our reception of it? Consider that novelists in time gone by referred to their fictions as “histories”, even “true histories”. Meanwhile, today, fraudulent memoirs are held up for bitter condemnation and their authors made into pariahs. In Un Secret, we have a story based on fact — remarkable, brutal fact that has more in common with Greek tragedies than is healthy. In fact, authenticity is thankfully beside the point because the story itself is such a riveting tragedy that one need never excuse it.

Claude Miller’s adaptation relies heavily on flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. The structure is deftly handled, insofar as it reveals the story with a teasing suspense, but it also adds a sentimentality that is misplaced. There is nothing here to get misty about; the effect should be hollowing for the audience. The performances are strong: Cecile de France is immaculately alluring, Patrick Bruel is aptly built like one of Notre Dame’s buttresses and the fraught eroticism of their relationship is handled with a bristling mix of desire and pain. Ludivine Sagnier touches lightly on the shadow of Medea and Julie Depardieu turns up just to make sure at least one of the family gets a trot. The score is by Zbigniew Preisner, who brings his trademark haunting flute along just in case anyone missed it in Three Colours Blue, and Jacqueline Bouchard’s costumes are beautifully spot on. In the end, the story is extraordinary, the elements quite fine, but the result somewhat prosaic.

Opens May 15 at selected cinemas, check your guides.

Catherine DeneuveJacques Demy’s classic film from 1964 launched Catherine Deneuve into that heady stratosphere of aesthetic canonisation that the French do so well. In many ways, Deneuve’s career and name have eclipsed Demy’s, but watching his films reminds you of how bright his penumbra can be.

The Nouvelle Vague pin-ups Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut made their mark with black and white immediacy — you could sense the urge towards youthful street smarts in the bustling cinematography and locations of A Bout de Souffle and Jules et Jim. Demy is similarly reconfiguring the language of cinema but pulls it in the opposite chromatic direction. If you left a four year old alone with a bunch of Crayolas, they’d get pretty darn close to the colour palette in this film. Initially, Demy makes the rainy Cherbourg look like the Fauvists took over Jodphur and added some cobblestones. As the film’s storyline progresses, the palette smooths itself into creams and whites – it is an Expressionistic stylisation that belies the social realism of the plot and yet matches it incomparably well.

Demy’s cinematographer, Jean Rabier, had earned his stripes on Les Quatre Cents Coups with Truffaut, Les Amants with Louis Malle and Cléo de 5 à 7 with Agnès Varda. This was to be Demy’s first colour film and Rabier clearly pulled all the stops out. The lighting is unusually high-key, which makes the surrounding surfaces as luminous as the actors, and by playing with the balance of daylight and tungsten sources, Rabier heightens the contrast of candy-like interiors and blue exteriors.

Working alongside the cinematography in heightening the stylisation of it all is the amazing music by Michel Legrand. The film is less a movie than it is an operetta — the entire script is sung. Indeed, the score and voices were pre-recorded and the filming took place with actors miming to playback. Demy is paying homage to the musicals of the Hollywood studios, the melodramas of the French theatre and the opera of all Europe in one fell swoop. The effect is magical, unsentimental and triumphantly enjoyable.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Available now throughAztec International
$29.95
Also available is Demy’s 1967 follow-up The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Alegranza album coverAlegranza is an album remarkable in its ability to simultaneously invite and dismiss comparison. El Guincho is Pablo Diaz-Reixa and he’s managed to sample half a planet worth of music without it coalescing into a lazy homogeneity. His beats oscillate with wild abandon and yet the album feels tightly sprung, like a jack-in-the-box that’s been teasingly wound up. Born in the Canary Islands and now based in Barcelona, El Guincho kicks off Alegranza with a track that slams doowop honey up against salt-water-summer vocals and backs it up with a track that plucks itself out of the dancehalls of Sub-Saharan Africa. Its effervescent, glorious, lollipop music.

El Guincho: Alegranza out now through Mistletone Records

Get yourself along to see El Guincho’s Australian tour this May. He’s playing along with Architecture in Helsinki as well as solo sideshows, check your guides.

The WOMAD festival shows off some very fine musicians from around the world who would otherwise slip well under the radar of commercial radio and media here in Australia. At the same time, it doesn’t forget that the Occident is part of that very same world and from The Cruel Sea to the Kronos Quartet, it’s played host to some great talents from the USA, the UK and the Antipodes. Indeed, the Friday night line-up this year was dominated by these acts. The John Butler Trio and The Black Arm Band owned the big crowds early in the evening, with gospel queen Mavis Staples rounding out the main stage performances with a downright authoritative performance of classic soul. Staples couldn’t quite pronounce Adelaide’s name, but she wrapped her mouth around some awesome gravely tones as she stirred up the crowd with memories of the civil rights struggles of yesteryear and the struggles that continue to this day. In a style reminiscent of Jimmy Cliff, she gave such committed renditions of old standards that their cliché and nostalgia was replaced by an urgent passion.

The key headline act this year, Cesaria Evora, was forced to withdraw due to illness after the festival had already begun. And so, the big crowd-pleasing finale on Sunday night was left in the incontrovertibly safe hands of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. The band provided a three song lead-in for Jones, with a sound as taut as their bass drum insignia and dapper suits to match. With appetites whetted and anticipation building, Jones charged on stage with rambunctious determination and proceeded to belt out an audaciously cool funk. She shimmied, she hollered and she grooved. Out in the crowd, thousands upon thousands of people swivelled and bopped as the dust rose and the sweat poured. And then it was all over — 2 days, 3 nights.

Film and theatre are tempestuous bedfellows. For every spirited success (take Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street) there are five flaccid failures. In Benedict Andrews’ production of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla the semiotics of cinema step firmly on to the boards.

This is a remarkable work of theatre. The direction is fluid and graceful and the performances often brilliant. The set, rather than taking the traditional Sarsaparilla form of three houses side by side, compacts the action into a single building, mounted on a revolve. There is no risk of confusion: Andrews is a deft choreographer and conducts our attention with precise and seamless shifts. Added to this is the presence in the house of cameras and two screens at either side of the stage that relay their perspectives to us. The result is that the cutting up of the space is left to invisible lines: vectors of movement and angles of light.

The shared space of the set fundamentally changes the thematic dynamics of the play. Gone are the class-based material differences of the houses; gone is the false sense of security that discreteness can imbue. In their place comes a more private and disturbing landscape. The essential dislocation and failing connection between characters is heightened by the dark irony of their proximity. There are very few moments of spatial isolation on stage, yet the loneliness and disparity of the Mildred St inhabitants is often acute. The space is public but the isolation is private.

This dialectic of private and public space parallels the tension between the theatrical and cinematic elements of this production. The camera is a monocular viewer and the sole witness to the light it captures. On the other hand, theatre is stereoscopic and pluralistic in its witnessing. An actor on the stage cannot look out at an audience and make eye contact with everyone at once but an actor on the screen can. To see the eyes of the actor peering out at you, even if it is through the processed reflection of camera, projector and screen, is a window on the private world of a character. However illusory the experience may be, the sense is that this is a private audience with the character — an intimate moment of self-revelation. Thus, the public arena of the theatre is entwined with the private diegesis of the cinema. And where the theatre of Sarsaparilla is inherently allegorical or, at least, metaphorical, the cinema of Sarsaparilla is psychological and personal.

The screens have another important part to play with respect to the composition of the space. Theatre is rarely “widescreen” – its historical connection with everything from the gods to the lighting rig is vertical. Cinema is all about horizontals – from railroads to deserts – and the addition of the two screens, at either side of the set, widen the “aspect ratio” of the Playhouse stage. Perhaps this seems a trivial point, but the thematic ramifications are enticing. None of the characters, except Roy Child (Eden Falk), ever bother to look up, to peer heavenwards in hope of inspiration or, at the very least, some “razzle dazzle”. Roy seems to be the authorial voice of Patrick White incarnate, though he is never made more sympathetic than anyone else, and there is something hapless and futile in his vertical ambitions. The rest of the cast, staid in their horizontal urban sprawl, are usually framed by windows that cut off the completeness of their lives like a scene from Rear Window. The only thing they have to look out at is the audience, an enigmatic view that the audience is clearly denied and that, therefore, may as well not exist. The result is a cyclical ennui, an implacable desperation muffled by a suburban complacency that refuses to look up or down for a different way.

The cinematic shift of space in Sarsaparilla is paralleled by its shift in time. The cameras capture moving images but if there is nothing moving within their frame, there is simply photography. Time stands still, as it were. The directorial eye of Benedict Andrews can linger over apparently minor details – an empty beer glass or perhaps an out-of-place hat. The wandering eyes of the theatre audience necessarily take note of the static screens and the cinematic language of montage is thereby born. A woman enters, we see a stranger’s hat, there is a moment’s pause and the full impact of the hat is known to us. From Antonioni to Marker, the stillness of an image and its extension through time can be as redolent with meaning as a sweep of action because it is its juxtaposition, its context that imbues it with significance.

What Andrews has created in this production of The Season at Sarsaparilla is not just a wonderful piece of theatre but a worthy piece of cinematic craftsmanship. No doubt, this theatre is no film, nor should it be, but in working with cinematic language so fluently, Andrews has managed to integrate the two with rare success.

Warriors of Art: A Guide to Contemporary Japanese Artists
by Yumi Yamaguch
published by Kodansha International, distributed by Bookwise International
RRP $49.95

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this elegantly presented survey is that much of the artwork seems startlingly familiar. Certainly part of this familiarity might come about through the Yankeephile integration of Western tropes into Japanese life but it is notable, nevertheless, how pervasive an impact contemporary Japanese aesthetics have had on our popular culture. From Astro Boy to the Mario Brothers, from Hello Kitty to yamato-e, the markers of Japanese style have become globalised and commodified — and thus, sadly, sometimes made quotidian to the point of dullness.

This book, if nothing else, can inspire new reflections on just this dilemma. How can Japanese artists continue to work in styles that have been so objectionably hijacked and exploited by consumerism? Of course, some dodge the quandary by taking their own idiosyncratic path but, as this book attests, most choose to tackle the matter head on.

Takashi Murakami is probably the most famed of the artists on display. His delightful fancies look like Walt Disney had a big weekend with some Japanese dadaists. More accurately, his meticulously detailed and highly complex works take manga and anime and churn them into high art. He also designed the multi-coloured patterning on Louis Vuitton bags, which is either the most inspired cross-promotion since Warhol’s soup cans or a grievous error of judgment for both parties. Murakami writes with fervour of the superflat culture of Japan — the facile and hollow imagery of materialism — and his artwork, it seems, works to further flatten, with ironic glee, the icons of manga that so pervade.

Taking a stab at the pornographic arm of manga, known as hentai in the West, are artists Makato Aida and Mahomi Kunikata, who draw on two of the extremes of the genre: sadomasochism and pedophilia, respectively. Kunikata’s deliberately naive pictures of self-abusing school girls is both an indictment of lurid eroticism and a disarmingly affecting work of empathy for the clearly confused subjects. Kunikata also added her faux-porn to pieces of sushi, creating small pieces of indigestible sexploitation out of raw fish.

There are forty artists represented in Warriors of Art. Each one allowed several examples of their work and provided with a concise blurb by the author. Though hardly an exhaustive tome, it offers a tantalising glimpse at the best new artists to come out of Japan in the last few years. Whet your appetite.

DVD boxTake several established directors.
Add a handful of legendary actors (with a sprinkle of fashionable ones).
Fold in some cobble stones and avenues.
Add it to a well-greased pan, splash it with Pernod and put it into a fan-forced oven.
Remove it before it’s fully baked and serve with 4kg of icing sugar.

If you like the sound of that, you’ll like Paris, Je T’Aime. If the idea of a frivolous confection for the whole family doesn’t get you salivating, steer clear.

It’s not all saccharine nonsense though, some of the short-films in this compendium work hard to redeem the rest. Daniela Thomas and Walter Salles provide a profoundly simple vignette of a young mother from the banlieue and Alexander Payne’s 14ème Arrondissement, which closes the film, is all the more remarkable in its monotone melancholia when set in relief against the heartless fancies before it.

Stylistically, the film is much of a muchness. France’s cinematic aesthetes like Jeunet, Besson and Ozon are notably missing. So, it’s left to Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle to add some surreal panache and, unfortunately, it’s just a silly muddle.

At least on DVD, you can skip to the good stuff.

Noise DVD boxNoise is hardly an underrated film. It earned its makers a host of major nominations and some very handy wins. Yet, somehow, the rumble of critical acclaim wasn’t enough to launch the film with quite the stratospheric trajectory it seemed to deserve. Nevertheless, for those of us who simply missed out during its time in the cinema, there is now a 2-disc Madman release to let us in on what everyone else was so impressed by.

Director Matthew Saville grew up in Adelaide, attending the same high school as Scott Hicks, before joining the typical eastward migration to Melbourne, eventually studying film at VCA at the ripe old age of 29. After a steady career in the screen industry in various guises, Noise is his feature film debut. And a more accomplished debut is hard to imagine.

After the opening credits, which are set against a blurred and fidgeting nightscape, the first scene drops us into a familiar Melbourne world: the Flinders Street Station subway at night, a dank corridor to a distant platform, a young woman with big headphones wrapping her in a private world of sound. What follows is far from familiar – a film that is extraordinary in its chilling audacity and in its deep tension.

Saville wrote and directed the film but he is a wise collaborator as much as an auteur. His partner and composer, Bryony Marks, provides a brilliant score that is at times as scabrously atonal as Penderecki. His Hungarian-born cinematographer, László Baranyai, fills the crisp film stock with a short depth of field that keeps the action confrontingly immediate and dislocated. Sound designer Emma Bortignon’s brief, to convey the internal struggle of a tinnitus-sufferer, is unnervingly well-executed.

The onscreen talent is equally as important. Saville worked with several of the actors on earlier projects and you sense a common understanding of what the film is trying to achieve. Maude Davey, former Artistic Director of Vitalstatistix and a first-rate animateur, is blissfully believable in a minor role as a rollerblading policewoman, while Luke Elliot is an endearingly gelatinous hulk of grieving husband.

Brendan Cowell is, for want of a better term, the anti-hero of the story. A naturally intelligent presence, his character’s reserve and egotism suggest a mind unwilling to reveal its complexity to the simple world around it. Yet his character, a plodding policeman, is far from a bright spark. Cowell extends his vowel sounds into a drawl of apathetic, self-satisfied Australianness that grates itself against naïfs and sociopaths alike.

Though I’ve chosen not to expound it, the film’s plot is not so much a detective story as a thriller. Cowell is a protagonist in the way slow-moving astral bodies can be – he draws the cosmos to him with only a small desire to do anything about it. Yet, despite his faults, despite his sloth, he is redeemed both in his own eyes and the eyes of those around him.

The Meat Market is one of Melbourne’s most beautiful venues. The cast iron meat hooks are still on the beams, the names of the butchers are still painted in copperplate and the arches of the central arcade give a classical lift to proceedings. Nestled in North Melbourne, the hall has been given a facelift for the Beck’s Bar tag, with a swish bar that screams German efficiency and a line-up of musicians aimed to please the stovepipe generation.

Badi Assad

Brazil’s mystique never seems to waver. From baile funk to waxing, the West loves to aspire to its sweaty-wet sultriness and lime-infused cool. With roots firmly placed in her home country’s inimitable tradition of gentle guitar and vocals, Badi Assad sets herself her apart from the bossa nova crowd with acrobatic guitar and vocal idiosyncrasies that make you wonder whether Ani Difranco and Bobby McFerrin didn’t have a lovechild after all. She has a disarming lightness of being and sings of hummingbird kisses but she also has a bold knack for covers that matches the vaunted Bowie-turns of her compatriot Seu Jorge. With gleeful abandon she clicks, ululates and birdcalls her way through U2, Björk and Tori Amos numbers, while plucking and strumming the guitar with the finesse of a classical purist.

Striking a very different musical impression are the Mexican electro-poppers Kinky. With enough masculine energy to topple a junta, the quintet take to the stage with a brand of danceable rock that is one part Corona, two parts Tequila and three sheets to the wind. Unfortunately, the crowd was under capacity, so the full force of messy gyration was a little underwhelming but Kinky were unfazed. The diminutive front man, Gilberto Cerezo, who looked like Lord Byron had met a toreador and nicked his clothes, blasted out some trumpet along with some lyrics, but that was where the Mariachi influence started and thankfully finished. At their best, the group slide from metal guitar solos into screaming techno sirens with nary a pause to dodge the genre police. At their worst, they hammer out banal English words and fuzzy rock. Nevertheless, their musical highs and fancy lightshow suggested a capacity for engaging mayhem along the lines of CSS sans the feminine irony.

And, as for the Beck’s Bar, it should be positively pumping on Saturday night for the closing night party. Judging by last year’s balltearer of a shindig, Kristy Edmunds should be in a very good mood and keen for hugs at 3am, so get yourselves to some more shows and scope out which artist you want to take home next weekend – there’s $10 in it if anyone can get Merce Cunningham’s number.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights album coverSharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

100 Days, 100 Nights

Roll me up in some gold lamé, serve me up some sweet home cooking and call me your big daddy, because Sharon Jones has filled my glass with funk anticipation. From the first brassy intro to the last full-band fade-out, the album 100 Days, 100 Nights has the authenticity of soulful Motown down to the semi quaver. Amy Winehouse is in rehab and the pop world seems ready for a soul revival, so into the breach steps the buxom frame of Jones with a big Georgian voice to match the tight Dap-Kings sound. Ten tracks of blissful bari sax underscoring desperate love, honky-tonk piano and finger-licking guitar riffs. The album is out now (you can easily whet your appetite at YouTube) and there’s talk of a tour in early 2008, so keep your ears to the ground and your dancing shoes ready.

Madman DVD: The Road to GuantanamoThis film is a devastatingly good example of storytelling that is both potent drama and documentary. The documentary-as-film paradigm has gained momentum as audiences realise that the social milieu of the cinema is more conducive to collective outrage or edification than the isolating domain of television. Nevertheless, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s film is strong enough to survive the transfer to the living room. It tells the story of three lads from Birmingham who return to their roots in Pakistan for a wedding soon after the September 11 attacks, only to find themselves two months later in the custody of the US military.

To begin with, the plot runs at an electric pace and the filmmakers aren’t afraid to lunge from one circumstance to another without too much time given to exposition. This leaves holes in the thread of events. The boys decide to head into Afghanistan with little more in mind than the size of the local naan and the prospect of “helping the people” in some indistinct manner. Is the obfuscation a sign of concealed guilt or is it a dark joke about the possible links between Guantanamo Bay and baking? To me, there is something plausible about the boys’ naivety and the confusing turmoil of the region landing them in a travelling daze. It seems, moreover, to be a ploy on the part of the filmmakers to demonstrate how easy it is to be caught in the whirlwind of geopolitical machinations when one doesn’t consider every possible consequence.

The heart and guts of the film are the scenes after the boys’ incarceration. Their treatment at the hands of the Northern Alliance and then the US Marines is horrifying and torturous to watch. One is helpless, just as the young men are. The frustration of the prisoners as they are asked the same leading questions over and over again in various situations of duress reveals the fundamental fallacy of the presumption of guilt. Indeed, not only does the film display the sheer weight of inhumanity perpetrated in the name of “honour” and “freedom” it also shows the arrogant inefficacy of a system that is determined to see enemies at every corner without recourse to old-fashioned concepts such as evidence or justice.

The HostMonster movies are generally a critically maligned genre. But that’s because monster movies generally have all the cinematic quality of a two-week-old lamb kebab. On the other hand, Korean cinema is the hottest thing around the festival circuit. So, what do you get when you synergise it up with a Korean monster flick? You get The Host, which is about as fine a monster film as you will see this decade.

The setting is Seoul or, more specifically, the Han River. The monster itself is a kind of giant mutated axolotl with a gift for gymnastics, a multi-faceted jaw that would make a dentist cream their pants and a capricious disposition. The hero, of sorts, is a blonde-tipped slob named Gang-du, who somehow managed to father a daughter about a dozen years ago but now finds it difficult just to stay awake. When Gang-du’s daughter is taken by the monster, the whole family—father, uncle, aunt and grandfather—pitch in to rescue her.

For those in the mood for a splatter-fest, The Host won’t deliver—the horror is largely in the humanity around the monster, not in blood and guts. Nevertheless, the monster itself is a work of organically goopy delight and has enough of an appetite for flesh to justify the two-hour running time.

Like Breath, another Korean film that screened at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival, The Host glides from pathos to humour in the blink of an eye. Indeed, it is its perfect balance of audacious satire and heartfelt honesty that lifts the film out of being a simple genre flick. At the moments which, in an American movie, would be the most cloyingly sentimental, director Joon-ho Bong isn’t afraid to undercut the mood with slapstick, before quickly getting back to the thrust and drive of the narrative. In terms of satire, it is clear from the start that authority figures of any kind are likely to be either foolish or downright negligent—led by their hubris into errors of catastrophic scale. So, it is left to the family and their inventiveness to seek out the monster and bring an end to the chaos.

Du Levande

In a wasteland of monochromatic post-industrial dullness we see fleeting moments of quiet desperation, quixotic humour and heaving torpor. It’s kind of like Samuel Beckett went to Ikea and came back with everything and a kitchen sink. The characters are beautifully realised archetypes and their stories, unravelled across intersecting vignettes, present modern maladies and ennui with a dark but often funny zeal. Underneath it all, the filmmaker Roy Andersson sprinkles political references with a prophetic doomsday mentality. There are swastikas hiding in the most delicious of homes, death is waiting around the corner, racism is only a haircut away and love seems the hardest thing to find. However, it isn’t all grim mortality on show. Indeed, there are moments of hilarity, musical interludes and a witty precision in every department of the film, from the set dressing to the performances. It’s hard to see this film joining the ranks of quirky Swedish movie success stories (think As it is in Heaven) if only because it’s perhaps a little too bleak for mainstream distribution, so catch it at MIFF this Sunday while you can.

Screening at Regent: Sun, 12th 2007f August, 11:00 AM

 

MIFF: Interview

Theo van Gogh’s legacy as a filmmaker is darkly tied to the tragic end of his life but as Interview illustrates, his sense of humour is equally worthy of our attention. The film has the deceptively simple structure of a two-hander conversation that, in its rich text and complex psychological games, unearths a complex thematic through-line. Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller play wonderfully off each other as determinedly opposing but complementary members of society. He is a middle-aged, alcoholic, cynical, self-serving political journalist. She is a young, coke-snorting, blonde, self-serving starlet. At least they have one thing in common from the outset. The battleground is sexual, gendered and all about the assumptions and haunted pasts that encumber both the characters and the audience. Throughout the film van Gogh’s spectre looms, with plenty of self-referential details in the set dressing, but Buscemi has made the film not as a cloying tribute but as the sinisterly creeping satire and provocative set piece that van Gogh would have wanted.

Screening at Greater Union: Fri, 10th of August, 9:00 PM

Rescue Dawn

A disclaimer: from all appearances, Werner Herzog lives a highly creative, highly prolific, highly nomadic existence of which I am insanely envious. I feel a pang of excitement whenever there’s an opportunity to see a new Herzog film as much because I want to vicariously inhabit his world as I want to see the movie. Nevertheless, his films are more than worthy of my attention. He has a predilection for solitary humans battling/inhabiting/conquering extreme natural environments. Whether it is the straggly blond hair of Klaus Kinski floating up a South American river, or a nutty American frolicking with grizzly bears, or geeky scientists onanistically dreaming up space stations, Herzog has been there to honour their enthusiasm, undercut their pomposity and point out their inherent shortcomings in the face of Nature (scare cap intended). In Rescue Dawn our hero (Christian Bale) is an all-American lad with his gusto, optimism and clarity of intent but, and this is the inimitable Herzog slice of irony, he is actually a German. Set in the nascent days of the Vietnam war, Rescue Dawn could be seen as a mainstream diversion for Herzog—a genre film with established Hollywood actors. However, the whole film is laced with darkly satiric elements that make fun of the Hollywood films it evokes and quietly condemn the cock-sure attitude of American imperialism. Christian Bale and Steve Zahn are excellent as the central duo, with Zahn channelling his comic expertise into the tightly-wound Dwayne. The true events that this film is based on bear a slight resemblance to another true story of jungle survival that Herzog filmed—Wings of Hope—and the two could make a compelling double feature—fictionalised / documentary, South East Asia / South America, man / woman, war / peace. For now, it makes for highly entertaining cinema all by itself.

Screening at Greater Union: Sat, 04th of August, 9:15 PM

Alexandra

Alexander Sokurov is known for making films that walk the knife-edge of indulgent minimalism. To some, his films are devoid of plots, deliberately obscure and fundamentally boring. Then there are some of us who think his films are pretty damn good. Then there are the ardent Sokurists who bow down before his Slavic certainty like he’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s second coming. As you might have divined, I fit into the middle camp. Alexandra confirms for me that Sokurov is a filmmaker on top of his game. War from the perspective of the innocent is not an unheard of genre, see Turtles Can Fly, but its capacity to make us look again has lost none of its power. The war between Russia and Chechen separatists has been waged for many years now but rarely makes it into our consciousness, we are after all too busy with imagined threats to deal with the concrete reality of a people ravaged by endless fighting. Alexandra is a stolid and stoic babushka with an air of impenetrable seriousness, but even she is left moved by the scars she witnesses. She wanders the dusty, sepia-tinged barracks and village chatting to those who’ll listen, listening to those who’ll chat. There is something other-wordly about Alexandra in this landscape and the Russian soldiers, many of whom are too young for a beard, are mesmerised by her presence, as though the world back home that she perhaps engenders had become something exotic and alien to them. Sokurov interlaces the Russian military characters with local Chechens, some of whom are mutely condemnatory of anything Russian, while others find the commonality, the humanity that is shared in order to forge new friendships. The film is in its form meditative, at times funny yet the portrait of life and war that it paints is stern, grim and despondent. There is hope, but like Alexandra, it is there only fleetingly before, helped on to a train, it pulls away and out of sight, leaving those who remain to continue as they were, at least for now.

Screening at Regent: Sun, 12th of August, 3:10 PM

Primo Levi's Journey

“Auschwitz” and “tongue-in-cheek comedy” aren’t often phrases that share the same sentence, but this documentary from Italy covers both. Primo Levi the chemist, novelist and Holocaust survivor immortalised his recollections of his internment in If This Is A Man. He followed this up with The Truce, which journalled the ten months it took him and his fellow Italians to return, via a circuitous train journey, to Turin. Crossing Poland into the lands of the USSR, Levi’s book is filled with carefully observed minutiae as well as conveying the Italians’ desperate sense of weariness that their freedom should only take them further from their homeland and possibly to the gulags. Director Davide Ferrario takes the text and journey of The Truce as the starting point for his own journey, retracing Levi’s steps and considering the same landscape sixty years on. Along the way we get an interview with legendary Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda on the ruinous skeletons of Polish industry in the post-communist era. Indeed, much of the film is wrapped in the fallout of the Soviet break-up, with the outcomes being both tragic and comic. The movie rattles on at an entertaining pace and leavens the contemporary documentary with excerpts from Levi’s book, which serves to complement and juxtapose the visuals. A must for fans of Levi’s writing and a great introduction to the Eastern European disposition for those who like their travel to happen in a cinema.

Screening at Forum: Wednesday 1st of August, 3:00 PM

Indigenes

History is written by the victors, they say. History is also written by the colonisers. Despite the justifiability of Western Europe’s indignation at the neo-con imperialism of Bush, Cheney et alia, there is something undeniably hypocritical in their stand when considered from the perspective of their own colonial pasts. Take two of the producing countries of this film: Belgium and France. In the Congo, the Belgians tried to make up for their country’s temperate reputation with gruesome atrocities. In North Africa, French forces practised “pacification” through massacre and were hardly averse to torture. There have been films, such as The Battle of Algiers, that have chillingly brought these matters to a global audience and Indigènes is a film steeped in the post-colonial political mire of the last fifty years. The film follows the tribulations and victories of a North African infantry division fighting for the French in the Second World War. The soldiers, from Algeria and Morocco, are risking their lives for the very colonisers that for so long stood as the enemy but who, in wartime, promise them liberty, equality and fraternity, regardless of ethnicity. Of course, promises and words of honour are easily given and easily lost in the fog of war. Tracing the men’s journey across French soil as far as the Alsace, Indigènes always balances courage with despair, camaraderie with mistrust, love with narrow-minded injustice. It is unashamedly an attack against France’s cynical exploitation of its colonies and one which has borne fruit—the French government was propelled into action in the wake of this film to raise the pensions awarded to 80,000 former soldiers. It is also a very fine war film and a heartfelt cry for solidarity and justice at a time when the chasm between Europe and its former colonies is as vast and dangerous as ever.

Screening at RMIT Capitol Theatre: Sun, 12th of August, 5:30 PM

Away From Her

Julie Christie returns to the big screen and, her beauty as crystalline and mesmerising as ever, she remains a luminous presence. We are introduced to an apparently blissful retired family life. The lighting is warm, the location bucolic, the cross-country skis are new, the hair silver but lush, the couture that catalogue-perfect ensemble of earth-coloured, deconstructed natural fibres, he reads Ondaatje to her on the sofa, they have friends for dinner with red wine and laughter. But when Fiona (Christie) puts the frying pan in the freezer this simplest of domestic trifles suggests that not all is well. As Alzheimer’s begins to take hold of Fiona, we see how it untethers her from the world she has shared with her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and leaves her adrift in a vague sensory sea where her mind is unable to connect the signified with the signifier. The film, lovingly crafted by director Sarah Polley, unfolds this arduous decline of consciousness as much to reveal the underlying fractures of the marriage as to illustrate an illness. Grant begins to futilely wonder/hope that this is perhaps all a charade on Fiona’s part—a way to get back at him for past transgressions—and the film flirts with the ambiguity of Fiona’s involvement in her own unravelling. In brief moments of lucidity, she seems almost to be begging Grant not to try to drag her out of the blissful coma of unconscious waking that she has fallen into, as though fighting against the Alzheimer’s and the recognition of her own incapacities that this entails is more horrible than simply giving into the blur of unthought. What shines through more than anything in the film are the touchingly open performances from both Christie and Pinsent. Former head of VCA Drama, Lindy Davies, was performance consultant on the film and with Sarah Polley, an actor herself, they have extracted finely-wrought and truthful characters who are trying to deal with their own mistakes, their own mental failings and their own mortality.

Screening at Regent: Sunday 5th of August, 3:00 PM

Breath

Kim Ki-duk’s Breath is set in the freezing air of a South Korean winter. The glacial atmosphere extends inside the unromantic modernist achitecture that is home to Yeon, a sculptress in a gratingly unfulfilling marriage. Also searching for some warmth are the shivering prisoners who inhabit a bare-wall cell of Hang Sung prison. There’s a profound sense of stylistic essentialism in the filmmaking. The script is lean, the characters mercurial and mysterious, and the humour black. Scenes are almost universally monologic, or more accurately, they are dialogues with only one vocal participant. It is a choice that frees Ki-duk from dictating motivations and allows him to harness the silences, the unspoken parts through visuals. For a film that is in some ways so unadorned, with so few speaking roles, it nevertheless relates a complex web of relationships, dependencies, passions and desires where every character is viscerally intertwined with the central lovers.

Screening at Forum: Sun, 12th of August, 11:00 AM

Snowcake

Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver are two actors not generally associated with odd-couple comedy but some of the finest moments in Snowcake come out of their on-screen disparity. Rickman has that dry, acerbic voice that marks him as a natural villain, not because he looks nasty (though he can) but because there’s clearly something he’s hiding and he doesn’t seem to mind you knowing, but in Snowcake he is playing a fundamentally good person with a flawed past. Weaver is playing a woman in a Canadian backwater with “high-functioning autism”. Carrie-Anne Moss plays her neighbour, a woman with a penchant for gentlemen callers and an Oriental interior design philosophy (Blanche DuBois meets feng shui). The whole plot smacks of contrivance unfortunately, but I tried to push my misgivings aside and go with it. The three central actors are all seasoned performers and I feel all of them are doing their best with writing that doesn’t quite work. Nevertheless, there are moments in the film where the writing is razor sharp, particularly in the centre-piece scene of “comic book Scrabble” between Weaver and Rickman. The supporting cast simply make up the quota of eccentric townsfolk but the film still has a heart-warming and genuinely engaging quality to it. Montreal collective Broken Social Scene provide a disarmingly cute score but the fact that Steve Coogan and Michael Winterbottom pop up as executive producers seems surprising—perhaps on the page it seemed “quirky” rather than manufactured.

Front Page DVDThe Front Page by Billy Wilder

Madman Entertainment

In a recent talk with Milos Forman on American radio, the interviewer asked the director how it was that a Czech émigré could create films thought of as quintessentially American—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in this case. Forman responded without irony or guile, “that was a Czech film”. It is perhaps a sign of America’s cultural arrogance that it swallows, in all sincerity, every one else’s cultures without seeing the acquisition as anything but an expression of itself. Seeing it from a more optimistic perspective, it perhaps illustrates how the American identity is intrinsically linked to its resident diasporas. Milos Forman has indeed made some “great American films” but, on this front, his legacy palls in comparison to that of Billy Wilder.

Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Austria-Hungary (now Poland), Billy Wilder began his film career in the heady Weimar years of Berlin. His Jewish heritage gave him good reason to get the hell out of Germany when Hitler and his goons came to town. Eventually finding his way to Hollywood, Wilder learnt English in a hurry and, judging by his screenwriting, learnt to write American English better than most Americans. In the same way that a polyglot like Vladimir Nabokov acquired and used languages in a perversely prodigious manner, Wilder’s writing is vernacular and complex, rhythmically sublime and studded with more double entendres than a Freudian could throw a phallic symbol at. Our contemporary society is obsessed with our youth’s capacity to absorb imagery at breakneck speed, but contemporary actors’ mouths are practically comatose compared to the fast-talking riffs that Wilder characters spit out—only rappers talk that fast these days.

And what of his legacy? In Double Indemnity he defined the American film noir movement, in Sunset Boulevard he provided the ultimate elegy to early Hollywood, in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot he gave Marilyn Monroe signature roles, and in The Apartment he crafted one of the smartest romcoms cinema has ever seen. These are all hallmarks of American cinema.

In The Front Page, Wilder’s third-last film, he pairs the yin-yang of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the cut-throat business of early 20th century newspaper journalism—when “the early edition” really meant something. A screwball comedy of set-pieces and stock characters, the film harks back to His Girl Friday and the kind of in-and-out-doors mayhem that the Marx Brothers are synonymous with. While some of the jokes are more clever than hilarious, I can think of few films that can so fluently engage simultaneously in inanity, caustic satire and world-weary cynicism without skipping a beat in the plot. A thoroughly enjoyable American classic from the most American Austro-Hungarian Jew I know of.

Funny Games and

The Seventh Continent by Michael Haneke

German-born filmmaker Michael Haneke is on the verge of being catapulted out of his role as the pin-up for European art-house cinema into the glaring limelight of Hollywood. He is currently remaking his 1997 film Funny Games in the US with Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt adding their box office clout to proceedings. This follows close on the heels of his worldwide success with Caché, which won him best director at Cannes in 2005. The clever kids at Madman know an emerging market when they see it, and they’ve just released Haneke’s debut feature The Seventh Continent along with the original Funny Games on DVD to expand their existing directors suite.

It was the French old-wave master Jean Renoir who said, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” In the case of Michael Haneke, this is true beyond question. There will be a bourgeois family. He will be called Georg. She will be called Anna. There will be a child. They will appear content. Tragedy will ensue.

Michael HanekeHaving studied philosophy, psychology and theatre at the University of Vienna, Haneke is an unabashed intellectual of the modernist era. His capacity to engage an audience in a rapt act of spectatorship while at the same time questioning the very nature and consequence of that spectatorship is second to none. The complex and immense psychological stakes of his films haunt viewers long after the popcorn gets swept off the floor.

His silver beard and floppy hair have the majestic assuredness of an Etruscan marble and his films reflect it. For a debut, The Seventh Continent is scandalously confident filmmaking. It is the first of a series of Austrian films that Haneke made (ending with Funny Games). If we take them as a guide, there seems to be something very rotten in that Alpine republic. The eponymous seventh continent is ostensibly our very own Australia. But that’s a fact devoid of meaning in the deracinated anti-landscape of this film. From the very beginning of the movie, Haneke refuses to locate us with respect to identity or place. We have only a micro sense of the world which Georg, Anna and their daughter Eva inhabit. In close-up after close-up we are inducted into the vocabulary of their world: routine, conformity, facelessness. In this world, Australia is not a real place, nor is it even a mythical place, it is simply a poster. There is a rupture in the semiotics: the signifier and the signified are unrelated. How can one find reason in such a world? How can one find purpose?

Seventh ContinentWell, Georg and Anna can’t. And therein lies the source of their eventual self-unravelling tragedy. What marks Haneke as a modernist filmmaker in all this is his capacity to remain at one remove from the action in the frame. As the tight societal structures that have bound the family together are unhooked one after the other, the camera’s tight structures never waver. Only at the very end does Haneke allow a flurry in the rhythm. But the camera remains a viewer, a voyeur. The Seventh Continent is lit almost entirely in the blue-greenish sheet of fluorescent bulbs and the clinical chill of this light gives the sense of a laboratory (both Georg and Anna work in white coats). Indeed, even when the shots are from the point of view of the character, there is something dispassionate about the gaze, as though the characters themselves are just as removed from their own reality as we are. In a world defined and shaped by the impersonal spectres of machines, mass-market consumerism, television and numbers, everything is a simulacrum and our watching of the film, merely an extension of this.

Funny GamesThis propulsion of the film beyond the frame and into the audience is taken even further in Funny Games. I can mark it as the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen—watching it alone is a risky outing. It could make a wickedly misanthropic double-bill with Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers—the latter being the best film about terrorism in a city, the former being the best film about terrorism in a country house (Straw Dogs notwithstanding). And for fans of the recent The Lives of Others, the stellar acting of Ulrich Mühe is also on display in Funny Games.

While The Seventh Continent operates in a way that makes knowing the ending no handicap to a rewarding viewing, I think part of the brilliance of Funny Games is the way it toys with audience expectations, so I won’t go into an analysis of the film for risk of spoiling it. Suffice to say, Funny Games contains some truly remarkable moments of cinema.

Back to the notion of the film extending beyond the frame, it is not often that an actor can turn to the camera without comic effect. However, Haneke uses this conceit to implicate us, as viewers, into the violence on screen. At the point when we are most vulnerable, he turns the lens around and we are suddenly forced to look at ourselves and examine what we enjoy watching. It is sickening and revelatory. It is a filmmaker viscerally conscious of his medium’s interplay with the audience.

It will be fascinating to see how Haneke adapts his original for an American setting. In the meantime, get hold of the original on DVD.

Tense Dave choreography & direction: Lucy Guerin, Michael Kantor and Gideon Obarzanek
for Malthouse Theatre & Chunky Move
At the Merlyn Theatre until 29 April 2007

This is must-see stuff. Created by a stellar set of Melbourne creatives who bring their collective understanding of dance and theatre to bear on 65 minutes of inventive, hilarious, and inspiring work.

Originally conceived in 2003, the show has toured internationally to rave reviews, awards and standing ovations. Set entirely on a revolving disc, sectioned off by moveable walls, the piece’s animated and fluid spatial dynamics are a joy to behold. In most productions that make use of a giant lazy susan, the set feels contrived and cumbersome. But, in Tense Dave, the disc spins so effortlessly and the choreography is so intrinsically mapped out and infused by the rotation that it becomes an extension of the performers’ movements. The walls as they are shifted, can offer us both brief glimpses and unravellings of space that eschew a predictable rhythm.

Each performer is both a clearly defined character and part of a broader mercurial subconscious dreamscape of characters who people the imaginal realms of the others. The different roles of each allows idiosyncratic tones and humour to emerge—Jane Austen-like bonnet drama flows into kung fu hustle and so forth. All the performers are excellent, with Michelle Heaven’s remarkable comic sensibility infusing a delicious irreverence.

The Malthouse is proving itself an adept venue when it comes to programming high quality productions that have already enjoyed the added gestation period of previous outings (look out for Brian Lipson’s Antechamber at the end of the year). With a very short run for Tense Dave, you’ll have to be fast to catch this return season, but you really, really should.

ZidaneIt is impossible to view this film without the lenses of hindsight affecting one’s view. Zinedine Zidane was a household name in many millions of homes before the World Cup in 2006, but after it, he became known not only for his godly footballing skills but also for his swift and effective head-butt. At the time, commentators rattled their microphones with the incongruence and apparent capriciousness of the act, which had blurred the ending of the final. Zidane is a commandingly stoic presence on the field but one ought to remember that Stoicists aren’t necessarily averse to plunging in the knife (Et tu, Brute?). The French are never the sort to underthink anything, thank god, so there was plenty of Camusian talk of Zidane slamming his forehead allegorically at the untenable role that French society had forced him to live out. And there is something of this sentiment in the film Zidane.

The credit list for this film reads like an invite list to a fine trans-Atlantic indie-scenester party: musical advice from Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, an original score by Mogwaï, Darius Khondji (Delicatessen) supervises the cinematography, fashion guru Agnès B. shovels in some money and the main auteurs are contemporary artists with a Turner Prize on the mantelpiece. So, this is art.

But it is art on the cusp of obscurity. It is conceptual almost to the point of distraction. The Camusian influences are clear—we are watching a man in the midst of his work, in the midst of a team, in the midst of a crowd but largely alone on the screen. And Jean Baudrillard pops in for a cuppa too—the ‘reality’ of the filmed footage is contrasted with the fuzzy simulacra of the television coverage. The question that rears its head for me though, is what does this say about Zidane? The cameras are trained on him with a burning intensity. We hear snippets of breath, we see his foot tic (ad infinitum), we gaze at his wristband, we read his ruminations on what it is to be in a match, and only occasionally do we get context—thematic, sociopolitical. We are invited to see a man, as with any ‘portrait’, but the makers don’t seem to be able to open the film up to the possibility of letting us see as the man. One of film’s great powers is psychological empathy. With a mere swing of a camera or tilt of the eyes, the audience sees what a character sees, places themselves in their shoes. In Zidane, we are left outside, contemplating the man, but none the wiser.

Is that a problem? Not necessarily. The film is fascinating as a study of aesthetics, of singularity, of alterity, of the discrete pixels that make up the picture. It is also beautiful. It is not, however, a film about football. It is an open meditation that, in its final moments, happens onto a kind of blind prescience.

Tristram ShandyMichael Winterbottom is becoming one of those filmmakers whose very eclecticism is enough to keep even the mild fan scurrying to the cinema to see what the heck he’s going to do next. This is ostensibly a mockumentary film about a film, but is more like a film about filmmaking. Winterbottom, like Soderbergh, references the filmic canon in a manner less derivative than Tarantino’s plagiaristic paeans to Asian schlock, and Tristram Shandy offers a smorgasbord of cinephile winks and nods. The soundtrack is almost entirely borrowed from other films: Michael Nyman’s driving score to the The Draughtman’s Contract locates us in that realm of period drama, Nino Rota’s music for Otto e Mezzo clearly evokes Fellini’s own notions of the filmmaking struggle, while Erik Nordgren’s music for Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and Rota’s theme for Amarcord are simply touching tributes to two classics of European cinema.

But this isn’t some reverent ode to the auteurs of yesteryear, it’s a deadpan comedy. You certainly couldn’t ask for a much more fully-rounded comedic line-up—Steve Coogan (I’m Alan Partridge), Rob Brydon (Human Remains), Dylan Moran (Blackbooks), Stephen Fry (Blackadder), David Walliams (Little Britain) and Ashley Jensen (Extras) to name a few. Watching Tristram Shandy after having seen Extras one can’t help but feel that there’s something of a feedback loop happening here, or perhaps there was just something in the water of Britain in 2005, when both were made. There are obvious distinctions between the Merchant/Gervais pairing compared to Coogan/Brydon but the comedy often derives from a similar source. That is, the foibles of egos amongst men who are wretchedly insecure without the mask of comedy covering their shaky realities. The result is a highly enjoyable film that steadfastly refuses to be anything but genuinely funny, which is enough, I think.

DVD out now through Madman’s Director’s Suite