Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a college classmate of mine. We were walking from class to dorm, discussing twentieth century composers, throwing names back and forth, along with thoughts on the composer in question.
Somehow or another we settled on Frank Zappa, whom we both enjoyed a great deal.
This reminded me of another twentieth century composer.
“Of course, there’s always Yoko Ono,” I intoned.
She looked at me – “I LOVE Yoko Ono.”
Here I explain myself – Frank Zappa released an album called Playground Psychotics in 1992. On this particular release, he placed several tracks that featured John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the end of the first CD.
A couple of these tracks were: “Aaawk,” and “A Small Eternity with Yoko Ono.”
In other words, Yoko was a punchline. Something Yoko has been, fairly or unfairly, since the late seventies. I was making a joke, and my friend didn’t get it.
But for one brief moment, I thought, hey, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps Yoko’s work is unfairly derided. Perhaps her failure is not in her art, but in my understanding of her art.
And maybe that’s the case here.
Watching “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” I couldn’t help but feel somewhat left out of the process.
This film is part of the “connect the dotz,” series, which, the creators claim in the film’s commentary, is meant to present you with various ideas, and let you work out what it all means for yourself.
But what is this film, exactly?
I suppose it would have to be considered something of a documentary. Over various clips of footage that sometimes relate to the topic at hand and at other times seem more than a little random, snippets of information zip by on the screen.
The info-blips tell the audience various facts about Nikola Tesla, who among many other things is responsible for AC power. Bits of his life and accomplishments are laid out, along with information about his contemporaries.
Including how his contemporaries ripped him off, idea-wise.
Underneath this collage of information and footage is music, which largely is improvised. Taken together, all of these elements form an experience not unlike watching Pop-Up Video while tripping on shrooms.
The effect is heightened even further by a recurring visual theme – a flying saucer that the film states Tesla invented, and the Germans built and used during World War II. The saucer frequently is animated onto and into the previously compiled footage.
The problem with reviewing a film like this is attempting to break it down into its individual components. It seems unfair, as this film obviously is meant to be experienced as a whole – educating and enlightening, and causing people to break out into spontaneous discussions for days afterwards.
But this “experience” is beyond frustrating. The film doesn’t build to any sort of climax, and doesn’t push the viewer in any definite direction. It has an opinion, perhaps, but the film itself doesn’t often remind you of it. Instead, the film presents informational tangents that, while interesting, don’t always add up to much.
Also bothersome is the improvised music, which suffers from the same problem. Taken in small parts, it can be interesting, but more often than not it wanders on and on, failing to develop any themes, or variations, or anything beyond random noodling.
This is not to say that this sort of film couldn’t work – in fact, xyZ proves that it can on the very same DVD. Besides the main feature, there are multiple smaller films. Some are compilations, just like “Novus,” and some are some of history’s earliest motion pictures – including a few made by Thomas Edison himself.
One of these short films, “Tesla on Imagination,” is excellent. Consisting of the same montages of footage, the same kind of musical improvisation, the same scrolling texts of information, it comes together in a way “Novus” never manages.
A lot of it has to do with timing. Over “Novus”’s 60-minute run time, too much time often passes between scrolls of text, leaving the audience struggling to make sense of a bombardment of images.
Conversely, the short film’s blurbs of text scroll by just often enough and just fast enough for the audience to mentally masticate on them. The music of the short film is tighter, and develops, if not a melodic theme, at least something of a rhythmic one. The footage is less obtuse – or at the very least, it all seems to tie into imagination.
What this demonstrates to me is that this type of creative work can be both effective and enjoyable. Unfortunately, “Novus Ordo Seclorum” is over-long, wandering, and frustrating to watch.
But, I feel compelled to add, the information presented almost certainly will pique your curiosity about Nikola Tesla.
So perhaps I wasn’t left out after all – making the problem how it was presented, and not what was presented. Either way, my friend would have loved it.