Sound on Film

The Barbican Centre recently put on a series of short films with specially commissioned soundtracks. Oddly enough the first of these, a collaboration between Nicholas Roeg and Adroan Utley of Portishead, simply entitled ‘Sound,’ was rather reminiscent of Koyaanisquatsi (although Kubrick’s 2001 seems the more obvious influence), with images of icicles erupting into outer space, and of stars melting into microscopic cells. However, where Reggio’s film has a certain clarity to it, Roeg stated in his pre-film talk that he wished this to be a film that people "do not try to work out." The disconnected nature of the film serves as a disquisition on the fragmented nature of memory (something reflected very well by the soundtrack with its extensive use of sampling), but for a film that we are not supposed to conceptualise too much, the film nonetheless continually invites us to do so, being almost saturated with a number of disparate themes, including a meditation on the nature of celebrity featuring Claudia Schiffer.

One aspect of this is the image of Schiffer’s face occluded behind a grid, like that of a chess board, wherein some of the squares are transparent and others opaque, the final image then being superimposed over a variety of images such as a frieze of hieroglyphs or a bust of Athena. It gives a certain mythic quality to discussions of celebrity, and rather reminds me of Camille Paglia’s comment that western art has always been inherently cinematic.

The second film was a collaboration between the Quay brothers and Stockhausen. The oppressive score is almost impossible to describe; it seems to carry the listener along with it, rather them allowing them any distanced standpoint from which to observe it.

The film itself is rather easier to describe, with sepia-tinted images of a woman writing letters from an asylum. With images of the pen moving all by itself, the film merits some comparison with Bunuel and Cocteau, although jocular images of puppetry sit uneasily alongside the rest of the piece.

The final film was evidently what most of those present has come to see, with both Werner Herzog and John Tavener present to discuss the piece before the performance. The subject of the film is pilgrimage, and the images of Russian orthodox ceremonies make clear the reason for Tavener’s interest. Tavener himself, with his flowing white hair, appears to resemble the elderly Tolstoy more and more. Whereas the elderly Count had proclaimed "it is impossible to continue like this, impossible" Tavener speaks of the "impossibility of modernism, minimalism, ism, ism, ism," before proclaiming the death of art and how no western singer could perform this piece (which appears to consist of a number of sanskrit refrains endlessly repeated – unfortunately Tavener cannot remember what the sanskrit means) . The film, he pronounces, is decidedly not art, it may either be higher than art or lower than art. Art is about substance, not the essence that interests him. In short, Tavener appears in exactly the same manner as I envisage Tolstoy to have been; a contemporary Biblical prophet, with all the curious imbrication of insight and obduracy that that implies. In truth, Tavener’s music is not especially well suited to these surroundings, which lack the necessary intimacy. Moreover, Herzog’s film is perhaps not. The images of pilgrims moving to the shrine on their knees, in evident agony, seems a somewhat ambivalent homage to a spirituality that can both contain such profound reverence and such grotesque self-denigration.