'X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES' WITH PERE UBU UNDERSCORE
Duke of Yorks, Brighton, Sun 23rd Nov
”I've come to tell you what I see!”
As the record shows, Lucid Frenzy is a fan of David Thomas whether to be found performing with his parent 'avant-garage' cult outfit Pere Ubu or branching out to provide live soundtracks. And here he was doing both at the same time!
The success of his approach may all be there in that word 'underscore'. The most successful film soundtracks are often the ones that work upon you the most subliminally, and there seems no reason to change all that just because the musicians are live and present. As I said of previous soundtrack to 'Carnival of Souls', “it worked almost as the film’s unconscious, worrying away beneath the surface”. For this reason Thomas may be deliberately working his way down the food chain, from respected movies such as 'Carnival Of Souls' and the Ray Bradbury-derived 'It Came From outer Space' to this 1963 Roger Corman shocker.
Thomas himself has commented “the amateurish enthusiasm and naive intention, as well as lack of budget, of the B-movie encourages a kind of communal abstraction that approaches folk culture, and the frequent lack of a coherent agenda leaves lots of wiggle room for whatever personalised context or agenda an audience or band chooses to overlay.”
And certainly the film makes not a whole lot of sense, either narratively or thematically. By playing up the arrogance and impatience of the central character, inevitably called Professor Xavier, the film seems to be be following the standard theme of hubris. He droppers his own eyes with the magic potion like Napoleon brashly crowning himself, and claims to be “closing in on the Gods”. (A plural form that probably wasn't there in the first draft.) But, like a tabloid kiss-and-tell, of course that pat morality is merely salacious. The film was probably pitched either in order to have that big 'X' on the poster, to allow some suggested nudity or - more likely - both.
But there is a suggestion, waiting to be carried by an underscore, that his (in an almost literal sense) insight is pitched as both revelation and curse. As well as looking through ladies' clothes, there's a sense he can see (in Eliot's phrase) the skull beneath the skin, a drug-induced vision of the petty parochialism of Fifties society. (And 1963 was still pretty deep in the Fifties.)
As you might expect, the film most exults in the proto-psychedelic X-ray-vision sequences. But it also follows a loose colour coding, from the reassuring clean white coats of the hospital (from where those dayglo X-ray sequences first make their outburst), to the lurid colours of the fairground, then to the more sombre tones of the bedsit as the powers become too much for him. His final claim to see “the eye that sees us all” at the centre of the universe seemingly comes from nowhere. (Though it is foreshadowed in the opening image.) But, as is typical, that kind of leaves the question open. Does he see the Sixties arriving with their cleansed doors of perception? Metafictionally spy the cinema projector Or a God that is not about judgement or intervention, but a science God who merely observes us like the universe is his petri dish? So instead of revelation or salvation you merely get stared back at? All or none of the above? We just need something to nudge us into perceiving incoherence as a kind of metaphysical mystery. Then, with nothing to hold back our sight, we can just keep looking.
Afterward the film it was hard to remember many actual musical incidents, but perhaps that should be taken as a sign of an underscore doing its job, of the thing working. If I've had more to say about the film than the music, then it was most likely the music that took me there. The mood of the music frames and filters the film, affecting you like a half-remembered dream. Music is also inherently a kind of an x-ray, you naturally hear sounds beneath others in a way you can't with sight. The music makes it feel impossible that those pristine hospital whites won't be ruptured.
There were points, however, where the underscore just didn't go under enough. Moments like a boom-tish on the symbol when an on-screen character makes a crap joke are reminiscent of the jokey captions early Channel 4 would add to trash classics. It feels like a snarky hipster commentary on the film, a distancing device to reassure everyone they're not really supposed to be taking this too seriously. Whereas the point of the exercise is surely the opposite, not being supposed to take it seriously is the very reason to try it – to X-ray-up our eyes, to take the ludicrous premise to the max just to see what's out there.
'THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES' WITH JUNO REACTOR SCORE
Duke of Yorks, Brighton, Thurs 27th Nov
...meanwhile Juno Reactor (aka Ben Watkins) performed their score to Sergei Parajanov's much-praised Aremenian film 'The Colour of Pomegranates' (1968).
Now, as the past history of this blog might have already given away, I am not in the least interested in fashion in music. If people are still making music in the key of the Nineties, mixing repetitive beats in with melting-pot globalism under the sway of Transglobal Underground or Dead Can Dance, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. But what wearies me is when someone attempts a piss poor imitation of that music, like they're aping last year's look. And my weariness multiplies when they stick that cheap copyism over a film such as this.
Its one redeeming feature might have been as a masterclass in how a live soundtrack should not be done. They played not just loudly but obtrusively. It was as if the film was being drowned out by a club night going on next door, but everyone was too polite to complain. It was as if you'd travelled to Armenia to sample the way of life, only to have the experience overwritten by some hippie-yuppie companion you couldn't shake, ceaselessly going on about how 'spiritual' and 'meaningful' he was finding everything. Just as New Agers treat foreign cultures as something which will look great hung up in their apartments, Juno Reactor treat this film as a backdrop for their pseudo-mystic muzak. I kept thinking it was like they were turning the film into their own rock video, only to discover later that's exactly how this project started. Satire is once more defeated by events.
Perhaps, with it's non-narrative progression of images and tableaus, the film becomes a natural victim for this sort of thing. It's more like passing through a sequence of paintings on a common theme than watching a regular movie. Though Parajanov was a compatriot of Tarkovsky the film's more like Jodorowsky's use of film as a form of ritual, if with less of his surrealist glee in sacrelige and more under the Eastern Orthodox sway of ceremony. Plus, as the film was in many ways a celebration of Armenian culture when it was under threat of Soviet homogenisation, without prior knowledge of that culture it can feel like looking at a set of symbols without a key. (Imagine an alien landing on Earth just in time to catch Easter Mass, with no context for what is going on.) Consequently it can look like a film waiting for someone to come along and complete it, like there's no existing text to overwrite. An exotic-looking placeholder, a templace for whatever's on your mind. And this 'place to find yourself' is of course the very way the Western world treats what it terms the 'undeveloped'.
But that is in fact precisely the reason why the film shouldn't be treated in this way. It's a kind of Jacobs Ladder, and needs the soundtrack of ambient sounds and indigenous folk music to act as an anchor between it's often-bewildering signifiers and the physical world. With those ties cut it literally loses integrity, it falls adrift on the sea of signs and becomes ripe for plunder. I listened to the original soundtrack (via the magic of YouTube) as I typed this up, and it sounded far more involving than Juno Reactor's shop-bought samplers.
In case I didn't make it obvious, I didn't care for this one much. You can, should you choose, hear the whole thing here. But me, I'm linking to the trailer for the film proper...