Those who read my San Francisco site may already be aware of Fushigi Kenkyūkai (Japanese for “paranormal research society”). This is a collective of film and sound artists based in the Bay Area. Several weeks ago they gave two performances of a program entitled Electric Shadow Theater: Film Truth + Surreal Sound by Fushigi Kenkyūkai. The two performances were given at PianoFight, a new theater complex that was launched this past summer, and Second Act, a combination marketplace and theater built on the venue of an art film house that went out of business.
With a bit of prankish irony, the “Film Truth” involved three pioneering silent films, each with its own unique approach to surrealism. In order of increasing length (which was also the order of screening at the performance), those films were “Le Retour à la Raison” (the return to reason), a two-minute study of abstract shapes in motion created by Man Ray, “At Land,” a fifteen-minute dream-narrative by Maya Deren, and Man with a Movie Camera, a 68-minute three-reel film created by Dziga Vertov (a pseudonym that means “spinning top”). The “surreal sound” was provided by six musicians, all with a particularly adventurous approach to improvising with both instruments and electronics. Slightly different groups performed at the different venues.
Fortunately, for those who are curious, the performance at Second Act was captured on video by Charles Smith, involving effective synchronization of the image of the projected film. The improvising musicians at this performance were Jorge Bachmann on electronics, Beth Custer playing clarinets of different sizes and singing, Bryan Day playing his own invented instruments, Thomas Dimuzio on electronics, Tom Djll on his own “surrealist prepared trumpet,” and Joe Lasqo playing piano, objects, and a laptop running MSP. Within only a few days of the performance itself, two videos were uploaded to YouTube; one of the short films by Man Ray and Deren and the other a single uninterrupted screening of Man with a Movie Camera. On the first of these videos, the brief interval between the two films is filled by a solo interlude played by Custer.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to capturing the second performance of Electric Shadow Theater is that four of the musicians, Bachmann, Custer, Djll, and Lasqo, had the benefit of previous experience with the first performance. While it is unclear how much of the music was based on agreeing to a structural plan in advance and how much came from the immediate spontaneity of the moment, it is reasonable to assume that, by the second performance, those four musicians had established some basic ground rules for listening to each other, if not for any other aspects of improvising. As to the results themselves, the quality is for the most part good with relatively little sign of any noises from the audience or the space itself.
Those who read this site regularly will probably also want to know about one particularly interesting aspect of Deren’s film. If the scenario for the film amounts to a dream-narrative, then it is very clear that Deren herself is both dreamer and narrator. However, there are some fascinating appearances by her intellectual colleagues (all gathered at a dinner party at one point). Among those colleagues, viewers familiar with the many photographs of John Cage will have no trouble spotting him going for a walk with Deren. (Gregory Bateson may similarly be familiar to some viewers.) Those acquainted with Cage’s music and writings will probably have no trouble with the idea of his appearing in a silent film.