Sunday, April 21, 2013

'Terminal: A Miracle Play with Popular Music from the End of the World' at the Rio Cinema, 19th April 2013

It's rare that I see something that I find it hard to form a definite opinion of.  This is one of those times.  I'm genuinely puzzled as to whether 'Terminal: A Miracle Play with Popular Music from the End of the World' was an intelligently original take on the end of civilisation or a complete load of cobblers.  Did I like it or didn't I? Do I just want to like it so much that I'm frantically trying to work out a reason?  One thing I can certainly say is that they know how to sell me a cinema ticket.  When the invitation popped up to this, it pushed all my buttons.  How could I resist what was described as:-
"A film and live performance project exploring the politics of post-apocalyptic fiction. A theatrical staging of a morality play for end times and future folk music, it recasts eschatology, or the study of the end of history, as a foundational myth for a future society. "
And you say it's on at midnight in an old cinema?  And it's put together by Pil and Galia Kollectiv, that cool band who performed with boxes on their head at LUPA 13?  How can I resist? I couldn't throw my money at them fast enough.  So I was positively brimming over with anticipation when I sat down in the front row centre of the Rio Cinema  for what I was sure would be, if nothing else, a weird way to spend an evening.  I wasn't wrong about the weirdness, but as it turned out I'd almost completely misjudged what type of weirdness I was in store for.  

Here's the basic structure of the night; the stage was full of musical instruments and the band trooped onto stage wearing crude costumes, paper crowns, hoods, fezzes, army gear and so on.  A good start: they looked pretty cool.  The band would kick into an atonal junkyard rock blues number with a few shouted, repetitive lyrics, and then they'd play a clip from a film they'd produced, followed by another song and so on until the end of the show.

Very naughty I know to take photos in a cinema.  I tried to do it as unobtrusively as possible.
The band were a strange mixture of the skilled and the novice.  You get an obviously talented guy in one part of the stage playing a hurdy gurdy, coupled with an excellent guitar and bass section.  They look confident and cool; they know what they're doing.  Conversely you have a percussion section that can barely bang a drum in time with each other.  I've got mixed feelings about the vocals, they were technically pretty bad, and the way the singers kept glancing at each other to check they were coming in at the right time doesn't indicate a huge amount of rehearsal time.  Having said that, it was undeniably effective to hear them chanting lyrics over and over about, say, acid rain eating away flesh and so on.  But, despite all this, they reliably fell into an enjoyable ramshackle groove that smoothed over any imperfections.

So the band were a bit wonky, but this was nothing compared to the film.  Taking cues from post-apocalyptic classics like A Canticle for Liebowitz it shows a chaotic, quasi-medieval future society faintly echoing modern day terminology.  Phrases like "Secretary of State", "Border Control Agency" and "Terminal Four" become quasimystical incantations to those trying to eke out an existence in this dream-like world.   We follow a vague group of people composed of dukes, kings, priests, citizens and soldiers, they head off on various adventures, their main problem appearing to be that an undefined portion of humanity has lapsed into a feral state, wearing torn hoods over their faces and practising cannibalism.  

This is all fertile material to explore - the germ of the idea is rock salid - but it's hamstrung by the fact that the production is about on par with an Ed Wood film.  The acting in the film is utterly terrible, actors making a series of bizarre speeches replete with constant glances at the camera, often with smirks on their faces as if they're daring us to take it seriously.  The cherry on top of this rancid pie is that the sound appears to have been recorded on location, presumably with the microphone built into the camera.  It must have been a blustery day, because the dialogue is largely unintelligible over the screaming wind.  Their solution to this is just to have subtitles on screen - which is firstly pretty lazy, and secondly slightly spoils the aesthetics.  Subtitles of the same language on the film inevitably distract from the action.  Would it have killed them to re-record the dialogue separately?  

An official still.  I wish the film looked this good.
What's worse is that nestled within this heaping mound of shit is some very evocative writing.  There's a fantastically conceived scene where a border guard explains that the concept of borders is melting away into irrelevance, but any seriousness here is torpedoed by the godawful acting and sound.  It's telling that the scene that works the best is largely delivered by a computer that speaks in an robotic monotone.  It talks of an artificial society that needs to be created to ensure the survival of civilisation, one that requires the kidnap of children, to be raised to worship the computer as a deity.  It paints a picture of a nightmare subservience, children trained in computer science and mathematics, their cultural, sexual and physical needs minimised as much is possible.  It's interesting - and I want to see it!  We don't.  Just as the show finally looks as if it's going somewhere it ends.  This took the audience by surprise.  I'd asked the usher going in how long it would last, and she'd told me it'd finish at 2am.  The whole thing wrapped up just before 1am, and the band departed to scattered, slightly bewildered applause.  

The thing is there are so many problems that you start to suspect some of them might be intentional.  Is it bad on purpose?  It was suggested to me afterwards that the bad acting and screwed up soundtrack were intentional choices to try and create a sort of Brechtian disconnection.  Firstly, this argument strikes me as a tad convenient, and secondly, aside from the occasional (as far as I could tell involuntary) glances into the camera there wasn't anything that particularly suggested an overt desire to alienate the audience.  In my experience, Brechtian theatre doesn't tend to be particularly subtle about these things.

The best defence I can come up with is that the film itself is intended to be viewed as an artefact of a nightmare future where all known cinematic and dramatic techniques have been lost to the ravages of time.  The mistakes and awful acting are themselves warnings of a cultural debasement to come, a look at a society scrabbling around in the detritus of the past, desperately trying to simulate even the most basic of screen narratives.  This defence also says something about me - I was and am desperately trying to find a way to like this performance.  

The blurb for the night explains that they are trying to question the idea of the post-apocalypse being an individualist paradise; a heaven for right-wing self-reliance, where the worth of a person is decided purely by a person's pragmatism.  This is catnip for me, but what I saw explored nothing of this; just a confusing jumble of half-thought out ideas, terrible acting and lazy production methods.  I wanted to like this, I really really did.  But no matter how much I contort my thinking on it, I can't shake the feeling of crushing disappointment.

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