'THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI' (WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK)
Fabrica, Brighton, Thurs 10th Sept
This expressionist classic from 1920 is always good to catch again, but was given a new lease of life by improvising troupe Partial Facsimile. With a demonstration they wouldn't be pulling out any stops, they started proceedings by processing onto the stage dressed as characters from the film. Fabrica's origins as a church came into its own, the vocalist even performing silhouetted in the pulpit.
They had the good sense to set a mood rather than try to dominate the film; employing Godspeed-like 'spectral tremolo' guitar, with low double bass that seemed to counterpoint rather than underline it, above a refreshingly sparse use of electronics and effects. But perhaps most memorable was the the vocalist's contribution, quaveringly coaxing uncanny sounds from his mouth. Since it became possible to electronically treat the voice, every supernatural voice in every Hollywood horror film has been sent super-low. While, happily, the cliché was countered here as all the sounds here came from the tongue rather than the throat. These slid in and out of forming words, sometimes reciting the film's captions sometimes merely babbling, always sounding like broken letters dribbling from thin lips.
The very first line of the film - “spirits surround us on every side” - seemed to set the tone. I was reminded of the way new technologies of the time such as radio waves increased belief in spirits, seemingly proving the existence of unseen forces. After a while I even came to conceive the players were mediumistically calling the film into being through their performance. (I am given to flights of fancy like that.)
Perhaps the test of a live soundtrack is that it leads you to see a film in a new way. I had previously tended to see the somnambulist Cesare as the shadow self of hero Francis. He happily tells his pal Alan they shouldn't fight over the affections of heroine Jane, yet later that night Alan is murdered by Cesare. Cesare then goes to stab Jane under Caligari's orders, but on raising the knife hesitates and abducts her instead.
This time, and perhaps through the vocalist being dressed as Caligari, I came to see the film as being about the title character. Cesare's first victim, after all, is the clerk – who only Caligari has any beef with. As Caligari finds the book by - bear with me here - the historical Caligari he is himself possessed by it, just as he comes to control Cesare. The key scene becomes where, after reading it, he sees “You must become Caligari” written across the sides of buildings. (This became the film's tag line on release.) The overpowering force of the past, its ability to inscribe itself upon the present until it can rewrite itself, is of course a common Gothic theme.
But perhaps my favourite reading of the film is undimmed. It is of course most famous for its expressionist style, the crazy angular sets and so on. Perhaps we have become too familiar with these, and what's often overlooked is the way this style persists. It's never framed or contextualised. Caligari's arrival doesn't visually 'corrupt' the once-innocent town in the manner of 'Nosferatu', it looks that way before he gets there. It exists even in the (often argued-over) framing sequence, which supposedly makes sense of the whole thing. We're subliminally aware there are no exterior shots, that this style is all-pervasive and inescapable.
And it's this setting which determines everything. Like Romanticism, the urban environment is alienating, it drives us all into somnambulists wandering its streets. Unlike Romanticism there's no escape from this, it's all dream and no waking, all Oz and no Kansas. The establishing shot of the town, covering a whole hill, rising to an apex, are similar to many of the images of the Tower of Babel. (Compare it with Breugel the Elder's version below.)
And underlying this is how... well, filmic the film is. It is often called 'theatrical', and true its sets are very often theatre flats. Most bizarrely, it has a redundant division into 'Acts' which recalls the guy with the flag walking in front of the motor vehicle. But our rush to the term 'theatrical' most likely comes from our cultural assumptions that film is a more 'realist' medium, and anything not conforming to that narrow view is reassigned to the theatrical. (The popular conception of Expressionism is that it was merely a visual art movement.) Many of the shots are extremely short, for example the classic image of Cesare with Jane on the rooftop lasts only a few seconds. The classic scene of him awakening, slowly opening his eyes, is only possible through close-up. The urban environment was a common theme of modern art in this period. And its this association of the medium of film with the equally modern urban environment which cements it. An skewed environment for a world bent out of shape.
Partial Facsimile promise “we will re-appear in the Spring/Summer of 2016 with an hour-long sonic-visual concept performance”.
CUZ FEATURING MIKE WATT
Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 12th Sept
Legendary ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, you are allowed to play up his name like that – after all it's what they did for the poster. Last time the man played our humble town, with the Missingmen, he'd brought with him a punk rock opera about the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. These assuming his return would naturally deal with Breugel the Elder may have to wait a while longer. For instead he's playing in a trio with Sam Dook of the Go! Team. (Who, despite being a Brighton band, I know not of.)
This is one of those reviews that tries to hit a moving target. The set's wide-ranging nature often seemed to be vocal-led, in that very often different vocal styles (or even methods) determined the differing nature of numbers. There'd be for example an incantatory folk-style vocal, a Slint-style narrative-to-musical-soundtrack vocal, a recorded vocal (which didn't sound sampled but like a whole thing committed to tape) and a beat poetry vocal by Watt. (Described by him afterwards as “my Walt Whitman shit”.)
And when they're good, they can be very good. But unfortunately quality seemd as wide-ranging as style. Nothing fails exactly, but not everything is all that memorable either. The set proceeds in the manner of mud slung at a wall, with the inevitable mixture of sticking and not-sticking. Had I been listening at home, I would have pressed fast-forward more than a few times.
Perhaps the problem was that there didn't seem to be any one colour of mud sticking better than the others, not the muscular boogie rock workouts or the more reflective folky stuff. And the lack of any distinct identity was compounded by the 'odd couple' performers – Watt the outgoing and avuncular American, Dook the reserved Englishman hidden behind a combination of cap, beard and thick glasses. Bands these days can sound like an i-Pod on shuffle, like they're just regurgiating back music they've heard without character of their own. This sounded more nascent, like an early rehearsal somehow promoted to gig status. It was different. But it was too different to even be itself.
Not from Sussex but Kent...