exploring art and writing

The Dream: an alternative route.

In Fine Arts, Identity, Performance on March 21, 2010 at 9:41 am

I suppose my recent video Emily and my subsequent quest to film musicians stems from a desire to document a form of creative power. This ‘power’ is based in reality; it consists of a person, lit by daylight, making sounds with an instrument based on musical annotations. The power I am referring to is not only the effect their creation has on their own physical and emotional state, but also on the musicians ability to draw forth emotion and specific moods from their audience. People who possess this power, however, are a minority. The rest of us who for a myriad of reasons cannot embrace the skills involved in making music must make do with experiencing it secondarily, which for most of us is sufficient enough.

But what about direct expression through music that you are not technically performing? What about mime and theatre, with artificial lights and brash makeup? What about in dreams? Dreams, after all, are what every single moribund individual is clinging onto when they take centre stage on the television-mutant that is the X-Factor. And dreams are when we perceive what our mind really wants us to know, whether in waking or in sleep. How many of us fantasize about our own life, about power or revenge or lust or grief whilst listening to music? A good few is my guess. It is this polarity to the reality of being a musician that makes all this dreaming so easy and so distracting; it must be the most common catalyst for Virilio’s picnolpsia and for the development of our individual personas. Music fuels what you are already feeling and you manipulate it’s meaning in order to make it yours.

So far what I’ve posted above echoes strongly my previous blog about the films of David Lynch. Apart from Lynch’s work the other driving force behind this turn in interest is my recent project involving musicians. I have certainly learned a great deal about working with others outside of the art institution, others who have lives far busier than my own. It has proven to be difficult, although I am hoping it will all be worth it. At base level I’m just trying to be practical: my degree show is in two months and I need an alternative plan and it has to be self-driven, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. My mind has been mulling over the two scenes mentioned in my ‘In Dreams’ blog and what they may mean, or rather what they mean to me and why this is so. This has led me into research to do with the ‘mask’, or the Other Face as Walter Sorell phrases it in his book on the subject.

To clarify, the two scenes I am referring to are from Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. You can watch the video clips of them in my previous blog here. Both make use of songs by Roy Orbison, the former being a Spanish rendition of Crying performed by Latin American singer Rebekah del Rio, the latter being In Dreams mimed by Dean Stockwell’s suave but sinister character Ben. Both performances are extremely theatrical and include a strong but acknowledged deception (in both instances the ‘deception’ being mime). So now I am asking myself: how does this theatricality enhance our experience and perceptions of the performances? And how does the ‘cutting short’ of the performer in both cases – and therefore the abrupt interruption of both performance and song – influence our attitude and interpretation towards what has just occurred? Both questions are, I believe, linked closely with the idea of mime, in this case referring specifically to the miming of a song. Del Rio’s clown-like makeup and Stockwell’s subtly powdered face are further nods towards this theatricality and to the acknowledgment that this other accepted ‘deception’, whilst appearing in the form of a mask, is in fact a far deeper and truthful expression of “our innermost visualizations…[reaching] beyond the ordinary for something of which [we are] only vaguely aware” (in Sorell 1973:10). Indeed, like Lynch’s films, Sorell sees in the mask a containment of polarities of which we have long been aware: “wakefullness and sleep, life and death, the live and rigid face” (1973:11). It is these themes that I am intending to explore in my next piece.

Still from Mulholland Drive of Rebekah del Rio performing 'Llorando'.

Still of Dean Stockwell as Ben in Blue Velvet.

These thoughts originate from my interview with Matthew Last, where I stated:

“We’ve discussed how surely it’s more beneficial for a person to take exactly what they want from an artwork whether they have any context provided or not. And music is the ultimate art form that lets you do that, which is why people attach themselves to certain songs. You know, people have break up songs and wedding songs and happy songs-“

Why Lynch decided that del Rio and Stockwell should be painted the way they were, I have no idea; like everyone else I’m floundering towards my own conclusions. In Mulholland Drive the singers makeup is circus-like with a tear drop representative of the song she is performing, her hair in an almost classical, elegant style that is falling out in curly wisps. The smudged kohl lining the lower lids of her eyes furthers the reference to Crying, whilst her passionate frown reinforces the clownishness of her makeup simply by contradicting it. Stockwell is less clown-like and more associative with street mime, albeit in a subtle way. The setting of his performance – as a home rather than a theatre space such as the one del Rio performs in – suits the characteristics of his white face and the song In Dreams; druggie-like, he is a mime without the essentials of black and red embellishments; he is drained of life and not quite real. The white powder almost seems to be a metaphor for the translucency of his existence and raises questions as to whether what we are viewing is dream or reality – or whether both are the same thing. Who knows?

Sorrel, in his chapter on literature and theatre, describes the mask as “often little less than a symbol of escape, a protection with whose help a direct confrontation with the contemporary world can be avoided” (1973:23). Perhaps this is why the two characters discussed above are masked with make-up and are both commonly assumed to be part of, or consisting of, dreams. Llorando could be accepted as the significant moment in Mulholland Drive when the mysterious blue box transcribes directly as the blue key Diane finds on her coffee table following her attempt on Camilla’s life; the song Llorando, performed by a ‘masked’ del Rio, could so easily signify the “protection” that Sorell is referring to. Her other ego Betty cannot keep this mask on, however, and it is the song that crumbles this persona; even after del Rio collapses, mask and all, the singing continues and Betty and ‘Rita’ continue to cry as they examine the elusive blue box. It is the song that transcends the mask.

Hence why I am intending to film a singer. Now my thoughts and ideas are streaming down different avenues, however, because I can only wait for so long. This led to the horrific idea that in order to be self-sufficient I should do it myself. But no-one wants that, myself included; I cannot sing and as far as I’m aware I’m not a very skilled performer either. On the other hand, despite the unavoidable impending awkwardness from undertaking such an action, I see myself ‘performing’ a song as a quiet rally for the musically ungifted. I just don’t know if this enthusiasm will translate to the audience successfully.

So far the idea directly resembles only one other piece of work I have done this year: Manipulation. It parallels it in method, possibly in appearance and definitely in concept. Manipulation involved me asking my fellow student Lucy Thompson to mime a passage from a piece of writing I did in my first year of university. It’s pretty self-explanatory, although the depths of its meaning are withdrawn somewhat if the audience isn’t aware of the circumstances that procured me to write it. Either way, context or not, the piece was a kind of catharsis for me.

“I think my heart has broken for the sake of someone else and because I have nothing better to do. Looking out, the hills are shrouded once again in a violet shadow that transforms into the impenetrable bulk that I am so used to seeing; that blurriness, yet that sharp, precise line, that fake horizon. The tilted profile of a giant’s head; its breath of exhaust, its twinkling mass of hair. My home now, it would seem, and so often viewed through this grim, spotted glass; this glaze.” (from The Fifteenth Floor).

The theme of home has been recurring in many of my videos, albeit more as background noise rather than a forefront concept. My videos take place with people I know well in order for myself and the audience to gain some sort of intimacy from the pieces. In the case of Manipulation (watch here), not only did I ask one of my closest friends to recite the passage above, I asked her to mime it to my voice. The actual video lasts four minutes and involved the same passage of speech being continually repeated (the video was also played on a continuous loop), as well the passage being overridden by ominous and domineering sounds (all derived from the ‘home’) and then silence, with the image of Lucy continuing to mouth the words. At this point the only film of Lynch’s I had seen was Eraserhead; following this I went on to watch the films discussed above, so it’s not really surprising that the In Dreams and Llorando scenes struck a chord with me.

The miming in Manipulation – and the process of getting someone else to do it for me – was the cowards way of expressing what they needed to say. Miming to the relevant song is also cowardly, but it’s the next step. Plus songs often say what is desired to be said far better than a person is capable of expressing themselves. The idea of the mask or make-up, for me, is also a nod to this cowardliness but is something that may allow you to begin to acknowledge what it is that you want to say. At least it should be in the piece I’m planning; I am intrigued to discover how I will feel about simultaneously exposing/masking myself. Or how the audience will feel, for that matter.

The build-up to the piece itself:

This page wasn’t written by myself but by a singer I met in order to arrange a filming-day (yet to actually happen). Listening to the music she suggested gave me a strong idea of what it was that I was looking for in my next video; like Emily playing the Ryo Noda improvisation, I wanted whoever I worked with next to be passionate and to perform pieces that challenged their skill and that were not excessively mainstream. I hoped, and am still hoping, that this would prevent the video from resembling the omnipresent formats of musical pop performance we are faced with daily in the media and on Youtube.

This was when I first started to consider miming to a song, mostly due to watching Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive again, as well as from the frustration of events moving so slowly due to factors outside of my influence. I realised that I had to become self-sufficient in whatever side-project I was going to instigate, otherwise I would find myself struggling for the same reasons. I began to consider mime more literally whilst thinking about people’s relationships with specific songs, as well as how Lynch manages to tap into these concepts so well; in his films songs are often used to reveal hidden ‘truths’ that could not be admitted otherwise.

Ad hoc: then I had to consider the deliberate nature of embarking on such a piece; what would I mime to? How obvious should I make it that I am actually miming? Unlike my other films which are somewhat left to chance (during filming at least – I very rarely direct), every moment will appear significant, as if steeped in meaning. This is the challenge when you aim for a more Lynch-like, symbolic approach to constructing a video, especially as at this point I am not quite sure what it is that I am trying to say (a bad starting point, surely?). The deception doesn’t necessarily have to be entirely contained within the mime and the mask, however; filming Emily in my home as if it were her own was also a deception, one that could be done again but in my house here in Cardiff. This would sit well with the ideas of ‘fake intimacy’ and a home that’s not really home, both of which I mention in my interview with Matthew Last. This seems especially appropriate since it is these themes that are prompting me to make this ‘dream’ video; I will be masking myself in order to try and express something that I need to say, much like I did in Manipulation. The dream, the mask and the physical acknowledgment of the persona allow me to do this.

Here I also came to the conclusion that learning to mime to advanced pieces such as those suggested on the first page, as well as other pieces such as John Tavener’s Eternity’s Sunrise, would be too difficult in the time I have for this project; perhaps in the future, if I could invest in singing lessons to gain a greater depth of understanding about how the vocals work, a project such as this would be convincing at a more advanced level.

These few pages are a record of a dream I had recently; I accepted it as significant in indicating the reasons for my feeling the need to express my anxieties, albeit while masked and through another voice (again, as in Manipulation).

I was discussing with my housemate the songs that I was considering for my performance, the first few being The Book of Right On by Joanna Newsom and Oedipus by Regina Spektor, as well as the Tavener piece mentioned above. In my head these songs seemed to fit but I couldn’t explain why, so I thought they would perhaps be too ambiguous; whilst the video will probably not resemble my previous works I don’t want the whole thing, song included, to be completely reliant on symbolism. The simplicity of the lyrics in Llorando (Crying) and In Dreams is what attracted me to the songs in the first place. Using a more simplistic song would also refer to the idea that things are often more simple than they seem and are often right there in front of you; while the mask hides this, the song brings it out. This eventually led to me listening to a lot of old Irish folk songs such as One I Love, but I felt distanced from them. Then my search led me to songs from the Orbison-era of music and I came across Patsy Cline; I was already familiar with a few of her songs, Walking After Midnight and Crazy being two of the ones I recognised. Immediately I latched onto Crazy, as well as another track called Sweet Dreams. Crazy was the song that seemed to encapsulate everything however, although not in the romantic sense that the song was originally intended for.

This statement concurs with the themes of picnolepsia and ‘deception’ that I am continually referring to. There is an irony in the fact that whilst music is my trap, in this performance I am hoping that it will be my release. Whether this will actually be the case once the video has been made remains debatable.

The lyrics of Patsy Cline’s Crazy. Not all of it has been interpreted literally, but it all fits.

This was me trying to imagine what events would occur in the video. Despite the differences that I assume there will be between Emily and this film, I was thinking about what could be relevant similarities between the two. For instance, since I am planning to wear make-up – or my ‘mask’, as I’m calling it – it would make sense to film me applying it as Emily did when I filmed her. Not only would this represent the development of the persona, but by being a reflection in a mirror it would further the uncanny idea of the double specifically in relation to the persona (the etymology of which means ‘mask’ in latin); this in turn furthers the ‘deception’ of new media in that we are only watching a simulation.

I also started considering more songs, this time by Polly Jean Harvey. The songs are called Shame, You Come Through and Down By The Water. However, as much as these songs have affected me I found them to be too contemporary for the sound I was looking for; the older sound of Patsy Cline’s country music is more alien to my generation and because of this it often seems to have a poignancy and charm unlike the music we generally listen to today. This time distance between myself and Cline’s music also allows me to distance my immediate, more surface-level emotions that I tend to feel whilst listening to PJ Harvey; I am looking for a song that, whilst appearing distant or even irrelevant to myself, taps into something deep-seated beneath whatever persona I have developed.

Here I also started thinking about filming the application of my make-up in my own room. This would tie in with the theme of ‘home’ that is so intertwined within my reasons for making the video (see dream above).

It may be worth noting the artists I have been suggesting. So far, apart from Patsy Cline I have been constantly thinking of songs by either Regina Spektor, Joanna Newsom and PJ Harvey; all of them are female singers/musicians that I have latched onto in the past in order to break through the ‘existential homelessness’ I was experiencing at the time.

Practicalities: list of necessities for the filming of the performance.

I had to start considering how I wanted my ‘mask’ to appear. This led to research into mime make-up, which to me seemed like the perfect hybrid of del Rio and Stockwell’s faces in their performances. Mime, as in street theatre etc, indicates fakery and falsity in the same way a mask hides the face and therefore the character of the person wearing it. It keeps you safe.

Lyrics to Patsy Cline’s Sweet Dreams. The song strongly appealed to me but slightly missed exactly pinpointing what it was I was feeling. It is a very specific song that is undoubtedly about a more romantic love. Crazy, whilst appearing similar in meaning, can in fact be customized.

The page above is very self-explanatory.

How to begin: this is the closest I’ve come to story-boarding in a while, and what a pathetic attempt it is! It emphasizes my lack of knowledge in what it is that I want to be doing in the video. I’m hoping that filming will stabilize some of the ideas I’m having.

The piano chords are for Crazy. I thought I may as well learn the song in as many ways as my talents allow. I can definitely play piano better than I can sing! Whether this will permeate the content of the video remains doubtful. Playing piano for me is a very soothing activity that I am more keen to keep private.

The End, at least until filming begins.

  1. […] interesting in the fact that to obtain a personal closeness a disguise must be worn. In my Dream blog about masks I discussed their ability, via disguise and deception, to allow a person to reveal […]

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