A seductive film with live music, the performance of “Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then” was all about two outsiders, as presented as the kick-off of the fall season of EMPAC at RPI on Friday night.
First was Leonard Wood (played by Michael McGinley), a Kentucky hardware store stock clerk who spent his spare time obsessively constructing a strange and totally bizarre house outside of Louisville that he hoped would cure his wife Mary (played by Donna K) of her terminal cancer. It didn’t work.
Second is the director himself, Brent Green, a self-taught artist/filmmaker, who actually painstakingly reconstructed Wood’s “healing house” full-scale in the backyard of his Pennsylvania home in order to use it as the set of his film. It worked magnificently.
And so did his film/live performance.
“We’re going to show my new movie with live narration, improvised soundtrack and live foley,” Green announced at the start of the evening.
Green took a unique stop-motion approach to his filmmaking effort. The technique is usually employed with inanimate objects in order to bring them to life. But Green’s utilization of stop motion with live actors seemed to have the opposite effect, in essence draining them of life. The results were closer to the work of director Guy Madden than that of the Quay Brothers, and it made for an ideal metaphor for the narrative.
Based on a true story, the narrative is utterly fascinating, as Wood drew “blueprints” on scrap cardboard and built his creaking, leaky “healing house” entirely by himself. “Every stair was numbered. Every window was painted a different color,” Green explained in a quavering voice during his intense narration. “He was building toward God. And he was completely broke.”
Ultimately, the 70-minute film is about faith. Or perhaps the lack thereof. “It was a house built of prayers, reaching toward heaven,” Green recited, “begging a silent God for an everyday miracle that never comes.”
Green and Wood seem to come to the same conclusion. “Kneeling by your bed and talking to your hands will never be enough.”
In addition to his ripe, poetic narration, Green also played electric guitar. He was joined onstage by drummer Brendan Canty (of Fugazi), pianist Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand), cellist John Swartz (who provided the most profound sense of melancholy), Donna K (who created the live sound effects for the film) and Drew Henkels (who alternated between a vintage pump organ and a retro-futuristic theremin).
The music was primarily atmospheric, deftly creating a mood of quiet desperation and dashed hopes. Rarely did it drift into song form, yet the sonic element was an essential ingredient in creating Wood’s unique visionary world.
“The truth of this whole thing is that you have to build your own world,” Green fervently explained. “That’s what we do. What we all do.”
(Related story: Performance preview with video)