“Burning Down the Palace” is a DVD collection of three fascinating collaborative videos by filmmaker Mara Mattuschka and choreographer Chris Haring, on the Index label. The videos are based on dance/theater works Haring staged for his company, Liquid Loft, and they are beautifully transformed into dance films, thanks to Mattuschka’s superior sense of timing and kinetic camerawork. The well-packaged DVD includes a booklet with interviews and in depth information.
“Part Time Heroes” is set in a defunct 1930s department store, and derives much of its inspiration directly from the setting. The empty rooms, corridors, elevators, and storage areas of the store are populated by four characters who continually broadcast their dreams and obsessions over antique radio equipment, addressing an unknown audience. One compellingly miserable woman in white (Ulrike Kinn Swennson) croons into her microphone that it would be impossible for anyone to understand her. A woman in a closet painted gold (Stephanie Cumming) strikes an endless series of provocative poses, constantly rearranging her undergarments. A man (Johnny Shoofs) uses hidden phones to make obscene phone calls.
Despite the historical setting and the outdated technology, the reference here is clearly to our contemporary blogging-and-YouTube culture. These self-involved, self-obsessed characters all continually spew out the detritus of their fears and desires, exercising their disembodied obsession with getting famous, without seeming to need or desire direct contact with an actual audience. The underwear woman’s speech directly references her obsession with turning herself into Cate Blanchett, and the endless repetition of her movements (continual titillation without any payoff) closely resemble that of a porn webcast. Even the choppy, cut-up rhythm of her movements is like a flash animation or low-bandwidth webcam image. The characters do occasionally listen to each other’s speeches through loudspeakers or headphones, but they appear to be much less interested in listening than they are in talking.
This theme, of people who prefer to use technology to create a ghostly simulacrum of intimacy and human connection rather than risk the real thing, is developed in a fascinating series of variations, such as a scene where Swensson directs Cumming and Shoofs to act out intimate physical encounters even though they are separated by a pane of glass, or another sequence where the characters lip-sync each other’s speeches.
The performers, who collaborated with Haring to develop the material for the original performance work, are all compelling and bold both in movement and voice work, and they evidently have found a way to tap into a deep, inner wellspring of images, movements, and language. The sound design, by Glim, uses an interesting array of electronics to distort and enhance the voices. The editing, camerawork, and visual style are all first-rate. A fourth character (Giovanni Scarcella) is not developed, and could probably have been cut from the piece, and altogether the piece probably could have been tightened even further, but it is never less than fascinating.
“Running Sushi” is also based on a performance work created by Haring in collaboration with dynamic, charismatic co-stars Cumming and Schoofs. The pair are having lunch at a sushi bar where pieces of sushi continually roll by on a conveyer belt, but these scenes are continually intercut with bizarre dance dramas which take place in a strange, artificial 3D space with a green turf floor. Cumming and Schoofs, naked, attack each other with the staccato, unreal violence of figures in an early video game, and the sound design (again by Glim) brilliantly provides game-like effects for nearly every movement. Their movements are precise, but their eyes constantly peer around, as if normal people are trapped in a game.
Meanwhile, in their lunch conversation, Cumming is overwhelmed (as many of us are) by the ordinary stresses of middle class life: job, marriage, money. Subtly, the piece makes a convincing argument that the overwhelming stress of contemporary life is similar to being a figure in a video game: pushed and pulled violently by unseen controllers. Schoofs embodies this stress in an amazing performance of an extended panic attack.
The theme of stress and the tendency of contemporary life to flatten all experience into a surface reality with no internal dimension is explored through several more oblique, poetic and fascinating vignettes, including one in which the performers, suddenly aware of their nakedness, scream and humiliate each other (to the sounds of Vivaldi), and another in which they dissect the plot of a Japanese movie about family members who treat each other as little more than objects. Considering the cool, formalized, and abstract style of the piece, it is striking how the sadness which comes from the loss of personal space and personal connection becomes palpable while watching this film, but then again the tension between these two qualities is precisely the point.
“Burning Palace” is inspired by a 30s era hotel, complete with its own auditorium, and it concerns sexual longing, display, and seduction. (Some of the dancers’ movements seem inspired by the sexual displays of birds.) Five attractive young men and women are haunting this hotel, seemingly all desperately in heat. They perform elaborate dressing and bathing rituals, expound fantasies, and perform surreal burlesque shadow plays. The Bobby Vinton song “Mr. Lonely” is a leitmotif.
As in the other two pieces, Waring and Mattuschka here employ and develop an amazing technique for breaking down ordinary speech (banal sexual monologues by the performers) and using manipulated sound, movement, and editing to analyze the physical forces and passions which may be hidden between the words. A woman’s speech, glorifying her own attractiveness, degenerates into animal-like grimaces of distain and aggression. The performers, lip syncing the monologues, are so adept at physically imitating the effects of manipulated footage being run back and forth that one is never quite sure which manipulations are done by the editor and which by the performer. (Mostly it’s the performer.)
The filmmakers are likewise adept at using the environment of the hotel, and key props such as fur rugs and lace curtains, to inspire surreal and compelling episodes of sexual display in many forms. Since very little genuine contact is made between individuals, the whole hotel may exist in their masturbatory fantasies. “Mr. Lonely” indeed.
Waring and Mattuschka make an ideally suited team, and one could wish for many future collaborations between them. Mattuschka’s body-centered concerns and masterful use of space, composition and editing, as well as her sensitivity to sound and rhythm, match up perfectly with Waring, who has a knack for finding and using performers who are both fearless and disciplined. Waring’s focus on electronics, video games, and online culture are a dynamic complement to Mattschka’s focus on the physical and tangible.
One complaint for the Index label: while most of the spoken text in these works is in English, the parts that are not are only subtitled in one section, leading one to ask why the disc doesn’t allow one to choose subtitles in several languages, and then provide subtitles for all of the spoken text. The short “making of Burning Palace” bonus track is a bit of a throwaway, as it contains on-set shots, but no interviews or commentary, or information about the performance work on which the film is based. These small complaints do not detract from the value of this disc, which makes essential viewing for anyone who is interested in the intersection between performance and film.