FILM: On Screen/Sound No. 8 @ EMPAC at RPI, 12/2/15

December 10th, 2015, 3:00 pm by Greg

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Review by Jeff Nania

EMPAC’s latest installment of their On Screen/Sound film series took place last week, featuring two films that were of the show-about-a-show variety.

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The first was “And You Were Wonderful, On Stage,” an EMPAC-produced meta-musical film by London-based multi-discipline artist Cally Spooner.

Spooner came here to create the film after initially presenting this musical as a live production, but she said “it became almost too good at being itself,” and she found that it was becoming too much the same each time and needed “to find some other apparatus to get across exactly what it was” while maintaining that “live” feel of a show, specifically one where the viewer is kind of sneaking around in the background and watching it be made.

In fact, the very first thing that happens as the film begins is you hear voices of people setting up for the shoot without actually seeing anything, and you can hear somebody ask, “If we make a mistake, we just keep going?” This kind of continuity, and the decision to basically run it as a live production without much editing in the traditional sense gives it the chance to maintain the “live” feeling of the play. It utilizes the language of a musical with singing, dancing, discussing, etc., but the whole thing is also like a sarcastic comment about the whole idea of a musical to begin with, or even a way to break down a musical into its archetypal parts – essentially saying much by saying nothing.

After hearing the voices in the background, the lights come up, and we see a shot from behind the cameras, as if we are seeing the production being made. We see a woman who sings a single phrase in an operatic voice “dreadful controversy, everything sounds perfect.” As soon as the scene seems to begin, it ends, and we see a shot of the whole stage from afar and a digital pan of letters announcing “Act 1” and “applause.”

Spooner’s whole film is a series of these short pieces – the operatic singer, a group of female vocalists singing repetitive phrases like “nothing less convincing than a very bad fit”; a group of three dancers doing choreographed routines; even a series of “commercial breaks” where the whole idea of take-after-take was examined. We only see the hands and torso of a man who is presumably an actor as he reads and re-reads simple phrases while being coached by a disembodied voice, who is presumably the director. After one of the final “commercial breaks,” this voice asks, “What does your family think of what you do?” And then a cut to a black screen for an uncomfortable amount of time, and we hear, “OK, nobody move, nobody move,” as the viewers see and hear the backstage goings-on of a “technical difficulty.”

In some ways Spooner’s film is more about the behind the scenes of the production than about a production itself. In between the short “performance” segments, we hear disembodied voices talking about things going on in the show, or in the outside world, and even many repetitive phrases sung over and over again like “the backstory ASAP,” “try again…again,” “finalize…need to finalize,” “these are all behaviors that have been extracted.” At one point there is even a chorus of people singing out “um…” – at all different pitches.

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Spooner admitted to being influenced by the second film of the night, Mervyn Le Roy’s “Gold Diggers of 1933,” specifically the overhead shots and continuous shots that were choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. These kind of shots seemed to add to the “live” feeling that she was going for, and also to give the sense of a lack of editing from one camera to another.

In fact, the very beginning of “Gold Diggers Of 1933” is one of these spectacular shots as we hear the opening number “I’m in the Money” and see a dance line, as the camera simply keeps moving. After this large-scale choreographed scene is abruptly brought to a close by the sheriff coming in to shut it down, we recognize that this is actually the rehearsal for a show, thus making the first connection to Spooner’s film, as this is also a production about a production. The fictional “producer” in “Gold Diggers,” a character called Barney Hopkins, is known for putting on these productions, but owes money and has to go back to the drawing board. Aside from the show-within-a-show, and the large visual angles, we also see another similarity when the viewer first sees a close-up of Hopkins’ office door and then the close-ups of hands as the viewer enters his office.

Hopkins eventually discovers a young songwriter named Brad Roberts who agrees to bankroll the production, and would even be a shoe-in to sing the parts he has written, except for the fact that he is from a blue-blood family from Boston, and show business as a line of work is frowned upon – thus also making the connection to Spooner’s film when the “commercial break” actor is asked about “what does your family think of what you do?”

EMPAC’s On Screen/Sound series began in September and is presented as a way to take a look at in depth connections between film and sound. This installment was the finale of this inaugural series, but it will begin again as part of EMPAC’s upcoming spring offerings.