Monday, July 9, 2012

Slicin' Up Eyeballs:

The group performs live original scores for silent films Un Chien Andalou and Alice in Wonderland (1915). Needless to say, it got pretty strange.
Slicin' Up Eyeballs
RPM Orchestra's 'Un Chien Andalou' / Show Review
July 9
by Chris Homa
Slicin' Up Eyeballs
RPM Orchestra's 'Un Chien Andalou' and 'Alice in Wonderland' / Show Review
Performed June 6 at the Icehouse
Words By Chris Homa
“Who are you?” asked the caterpillar.

“I hardly know, Sir. I know who I was, but I think I must have changed.”

So reads a title card in W.W. Young’s Alice in Wonderland, a 1915 silent film adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s classic. This conversation between Alice and the caterpillar also speaks to the RPM Orchestra’s new take on the work. An installment of their “Summer Surreal Silents on Ice” series, the evening featured a double-billing of two particularly strange silent films –Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou and the aforementioned Alice in Wonderland – screened with the orchestra performing new, original scores. Much like Alice, these films may have known themselves before, but they have definitely changed.

Around ten o’clock patrons started filling up the sixty or so seats in the Icehouse’s White Column Room. A cozy venue, the stark white space was lined with folding chairs on one side and the orchestra on the other. A laptop sat in the middle of the seating area, acting as the projectionist’s booth for the evening. As the final viewers trickled in, the handful of members in the RPM Orchestra began warming up their instruments, which ranged from more conventional equipment, like guitars, to those less so, like a large rusty saw. With everything ready, the lights went out and the show began.

The first act featured the 1929 surrealist touchstone Un Chien Andalou. The short film rounds out at sixteen minutes, and consists of a menagerie of loosely-connected dream-like scenes. Some moments are humorous, such as a pair of priests being dragged along the floor, while others, like a scourge of ants crawling out of a hole in a man’s hand, are highly disturbing. The most poignant and grotesque scene plays at the very beginning of the piece: a man stands on a balcony fingering a straight razor. In the night sky he watches a cloud cut across the moon, and returns inside. He walks over to a woman sitting in a chair, takes the straight razor, and slices across her eyeball letting its innards fall out. Over eighty years later and it’s still one of the most disturbing images a person can see, as evidenced on viewers’ faces.

The rest of the piece is host to plenty of other stimulating visuals, and moves at quite the pace for a 1929 art film. Although parts may seem symbolic, it’s more an attempt at tracing the flow of dreams than making a statement. As Buñuel noted, “Nothing . . . symbolizes anything.”

For this strange film, RPM orchestra composed an appropriately strange score. Defying any sort of straight structure, the music straddled highs and lows but spurned clear punctuation of parts. It was more a flowing set of textures than a set of melodies and accompaniments. In a way, however, this made the score much stronger than a traditional one: whereas the average movie music takes on a life of its own, RPM’s score was of a subtle sort. Instead of flying above the film, it intertwined its sounds with the images on the screen, always audible but fading from the viewer’s conscious to give a more seamless experience.

The eeriness of the film was thoroughly enhanced by the choice of instruments, one of which – a rusty saw set up lengthwise and stroked with a bow – provided the perfect sense of discomfort. The muddled echoes of voices added an ominous atmosphere while also complimenting the dream-like nature of the film. Most instrumentation seemed random in its implementation, giving an organic ambience and further removing attention from itself. Still, as mentioned there were high and low points, creating a lightly-synced, subtle, and overall creepy score.

After a short intermission and a bottle of Martinelli’s apple juice, it was time for act two: Alice in Wonderland. Time has not been kind to the 1915 version, directed by W.W. Young and starring Viola Savoy, but that doesn’t lessen its quality any. The fifty minute film follows Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole, her happening upon the animal convention, her questioning at the tarts trial and more. It’s a faithful adaptation and a humorous one, but in retrospect it seems tailor-made for the stoners of today.

At issue are the intricate animal costumes, which are impressive even by today’s standards. There’s the rabbit, the caterpillar, the owls, the dodo, the duchess, and they all look amazing. But the duality is that they’re also incredibly creepy, and the story doesn’t help either. The scene where the human-sized rabbit first appears in his jacket, walking out of the woods and beckoning Alice to follow him, is bizarre by any standard. Then there is also the human-sized caterpillar sitting atop a mushroom while smoking a hookah. Lewis Carroll wrote in the smoking caterpillar, so it wasn’t the film’s innovation, but it’s still such a marvelously weird thing to see.

The score for Alice could have easily been made trippy and strange, and could have easily cast its own comedic tint on the film. But instead, RPM Orchestra embraced the story rather than lampoon it. Given to more acoustic sounds, such as bells and guitar, the score followed the story more closely than that of Un Chien Andalou. The music was still amorphous and given to unconventional instruments – a typewriter comes to mind – but the score did exactly what the other had done successfully: it enhanced the film, rather than take away from it. In short, it was subtle, fitting, and wonderful, much like the film it accompanied.

Anyone could have taken their personal lens and applied it to these films, but RPM did something better. They changed them. They worked with the films to alter them in such a way as to enrich their source material, giving the audience a new way to enjoy them. The performance was not the most mind-blowing thing in existence, but it was interesting, enjoyable, and truly unique.

* * *

For those who live in the valley, go see RPM Orchestra's next performance. For those outside the grand PHX, Un Chien Andalou and Alice in Wonderland are both highly recommended and available to watch online for free. What more could you want?

See a woman's eyeball get sliced here:

And watch a girl delve into the underground scene here:

Also, check out RPM Orchestra, because why not?

Posted on July 9, 2012


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