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VOX 13 (DVD)

By David Finkelstein | June 25, 2007

“Vox 13,” a recent DVD collection of film and video by Peter Rose exploring language and the body, is filled with wonders: visual beauty, provocative insights into the nature of human communication, and laugh-out-loud humor. The furthest thing from a dry, academic exercise, Rose’s epistemological vaudeville uses an antic theatricality and a highly sophisticated, original visual vocabulary to lift the viewer from mere intellectual engagement into a transcendent state which is beyond words. Here are some of the highlights:

“Siren” (1989), at 14 minutes, is a substantial, yet humorous investigation into the way in which language, written and vocal, carries information. The text for the film is adapted from W.H. Hudson’s 1904 novel “Green Mansions,” in which an explorer is drawn deeper and deeper into the jungle by a mysterious and alluring female voice, singing in an unknown language. The text is recited in myriad ways, from a fairly straightforward tone which parodies the narration of a jungle adventure film (coupled with appropriately scary music and ominous handheld shots snaking through tall grass), to a series of permutations of the text, in which the voice is layered with other voices reading the text backwards, in completely different tones, or transformed into purely rhythmic sounds or words from an imaginary language. When we aren’t watching the scary through-the-grass shots, we see screen shots of the text displayed by a simple computer character generator. This written text is subjected to a series of formal permutations: individual letters are changed to alter the words, individual characters are changed into different fonts or punctuation marks, in patterns which create overlying geometric forms.

The Hudson text extols in somewhat lurid, romanticized tones the seductive qualities of the human voice, filled with vibrant sensual energy and denuded of normal referential content. Rose’s constant subjection of the words of the text to random permutations emphasizes the essentially arbitrary nature of the code aspect of language, in which sounds or groups of letters are made to stand in for concepts or objects. The film gradually builds a sense of the complete degeneration of the meanings of words, accompanied by a swooning, elated sense of ecstasy, afforded by the far richer realm of sensuality and direct emotional apprehension which is obtained when one leaves words behind and enters directly into the energy and sound of the human voice. The tone of the film, however, is not that of a dry, academic study. The sheer wackiness with which Rose and collaborator David Moss invest their different voices, along with the silliness of the music and the jungle-on-the-front-lawn images, creates a feeling an antic play within a conceptual playground.

The film achieves a transcendent climax when the narrator begins to consider the possibility of actually decoding and interpreting the unknown words of the voice he is hearing. Rose switches to images of an outdoor environmental sculpture, a twisting maze of brick and concrete walls. With a simple visual composition, consisting of several mirrored shots of the maze inset into other shots, Rose uses the kinetic power of the moving camera to create a powerful metaphor for the adventure of listening to an unknown language, and encountering the dangerous possibility that one may uncover a myriad of meanings within.

“Foit Yet Cleem Triavith” (1987) is a 2 minute semiotic jaunt, in which a highly theoretical and abstruse text about language, meaning and time, which would normally be a huge turn-off for a resolutely anti-theory type person such as myself, is presented in a highly playful collage of simple, early-computer style motion graphics, accompanied by a very silly sounding collage of voices reading the text in a way that constantly threatens to turn the words into pure sounds. All of this playfulness really does give the theory-challenged viewer a hint about what the text is trying to say: something about how if all the impressions which coexist in a given moment of time were to be rearranged and experienced as a different bundle of relationships, the moment would be revealed to have a wholly different significance. (Like the title of the film itself, which is revealed as an anagram for “The Verticality of Time.”) The sheer childlike joy with which the images and voices play with this idea injects dryly academic theory with the energy of a game of tag.

“Digital Speech,” a 14 minute work from 1984, is another film essay exploring the relationship between words, meanings, and voices. The film intercuts several versions of an extended anecdote, which are told in different narrative modes. In one version, Rose begins telling the anecdote as a fairly straightforward narration about an adventure he had while travelling in Turkey and attempting to communicate in a language he had barely begun to learn. He sounds more or less as he might at a party, telling an amusing story he had told several times before. He announces at the beginning that he is telling the story on video because of the sense of “authenticity” which the medium provides, but he immediately undercuts this authenticity, as the shot jumps back to one of a tiny TV monitor showing his image, which sits on a table surrounded by editing equipment which a pair of hands occasionally adjusts. Bands of colored tape sit on the table, labelled with key points from the story, as if to emphasize the way that a prerecorded medium such as video can take elements from a story and rearrange them to construct new meanings. In another version of the story which we occasional cut to, Rose’s face is in extreme close-up as he tells the story in the elaborate, opaque style that might have been favored by Melville or Poe, a kind of writing which values style and sound as much as or more than clarity and content. In yet another version, we hear highly rhythmic vocal chanting, sounding like unknown words but also a bit like drumming, accompanied by a rhythmically gesturing pair of hands. Still another version has Rose’s mouth in an extreme close up, talking in such completely overwrought academic language about semiotic theory that it is impossible to say what he is talking about. This speech eventually morphs directly into the rhythmic, gibberish language.

Rose cleverly draws out the telling of the anecdote through all of this elaborate intercutting, and this device serves as an effective hook for the viewer, since the story, which is a parable for all of the underlying concepts of the film, is also simply an interesting story, and we want to find out how it ends. When we do hear the story’s punchline, it turns out that, in an extremely literal way, it refers to fingers and the act of pointing, and thus to the often problematic notion that words “point to” meanings, with which the film is chiefly concerned. This, and the rhythmically dancing hands, reveal what the “Digital” of the title really refers to.

“Secondary Currents,” a 16 minute film from 1982, has the grandeur and depth of a comic masterpiece. Subtitled “a film noir,” the film consists of completely black frames with subtitles. The subtitles tell a kind of rambling, abstracted tale, which clearly is concerned with language and communication, but rarely relates specifically identifiable events. (The only clear event in the story involves an old woman who offers a basket of succulent peaches to the narrator.) A male voice tells the story in parallel with the written subtitles, but he speaks in an invented gibberish. If one listens quite closely to the sounds of the made-up words, a tremendous amount of comedy is derived from the constantly shifting relationship between the gibberish and the written text. The sound of the voice continuously comments on the text, either by vocal tone, or by imitating Japanese or Italian or Swedish, or even by the amount of reverb and room tone which is recorded behind the voice. After this prolonged comic prologue, just as the narrator has cut open and enjoyed the unspeakable juiciness of the peaches (somewhat as if he had cut upon and enjoyed the tangible qualities of language itself), his language grows more and more ornate and indecipherable. As so often in Rose’s work, language goes through a phase of dense, academic-sounding jargon, and passes by minute degrees into completely nonreferential vocal sounds. As this happens, the subtitles slowly lose their quality of being legible English, and turn into collections of letters which no longer represent any known words.

In an incredible climax, these printed words turn bit by bit into pages of concrete poetry, the letters being displaced along the frame to form dynamic geometric patterns. Meanwhile, the voice, increasingly staccato and percussive, becomes mixed with Jim Meneses’ propulsively unmetrical percussion score. In a moment of thrilling transformation, the letters on the screen erupt into multilayered motion, becoming a sea of dancing units of language. The voice and the percussion are also transformed, multiplied and distorted, until a wider, deeper coherence seems to emerge from the chaos of noise. Simultaneously, new, larger English words emerge out of the chaos of dancing letters on screen: “FEAR. I. DISSOLVE. MY VOICE.” It is as if, in a frenzied trance dance of incoherent sound, a deeper and much more primal self has been awakened and is now speaking through the narrator, as if at the climax of a possession ritual. The word “MEANING” is revealed in the black spaces between the letters. The experience of watching and listening to “Secondary Currents,” as it goes from a charming spoof on language to becoming a frenzied ritual of awakened spirits, is shattering.

“Pressures of the Text” (1983) is a full-scale comic foray into the questions of language and the body. Rose appears as a mild-mannered professor lecturing on this topic, who promises to be “as logical and concrete and specific as I can, in order to avoid generalizations.” Despite this promise, his manner of speaking rapidly degenerates into an academic jargon which is indecipherable. As this jargon morphs imperceptibly into a spontaneously invented language, Rose’s manner becomes visibly more relaxed, as language now flows freely, from deep within the body, unencumbered by the need to use known words. Rose seems aware that his audience can no longer understand the words, so he resorts increasingly to bodily gestures, such as vigorous pointing, as well as highly comic illustrations of his mysterious lecture using such props as a book filled with water and two pairs of sunglasses. The film continues with several more episodes which explore variations on the theme of sponaneously invented language and the body, ending up with a story told in an increasingly ornate and incomprehensible language which also apparently is a highly pornographic tale of hot sex. (“…lobbing Spartan homilies to her glorious cadenza…” is an example.) As the subject matter gets deeper and deeper into what is a bodily, nonverbal experience, and the language degenerates into incomprehensibility, the diacritical marks on the onscreen text grow and grow until they entirely overtake the letters, turning words into iconographic pictures. The film ends with an orgasmic scream, but one which can clearly be heard as distorted by a manipulation of the magnetic tape on which it is recorded, rendering even the ethereal experience of recorded sound as being inescapably corporeal. This antic, laugh-out-loud romp clowns it’s way through a tour de force embodiment of some pretty substantial ideas.

“Understory” (1987), more than the other films, delves explicitly into the spiritual realms which become accessible when one open’s oneself to the automatic flow of spontaneously invented vocal sounds. The opening narration announces that the film will be “somewhere between a ceremony and an incantation.” We see a drummer and a fire dancer who is holding two torches entering a dank, underground tunnel, and the sound of drumming completes the ritual setting. We are told that the story takes place “once upon a time, once beside a time, once below a time, once between a time.” This formulaic opening seems a reference to neopagan observances which typically begin by invoking the four directions and elements. We follow the fire dancer deeper and deeper into the endlessly winding underground tunnel, the light from her torches crazily illuminating the oddly curved surfaces in the otherwise total darkness. Simultaneously, the celebrant is pictured at times as being high up on the scaffolding of a bridge, as well as walking along a dam in a river. Like Kenneth Anger, Rose is here using film to explicitly invoke magic ritual and it’s capacity for making us feel as if we are simultaneously in several worlds. The film-ritual ends with a magnificent fire dance by Leah Stein, accompanied by a flurry of drumming, in which a slowed down frame rate creates bizarre after-images from the light cast by the swinging torches onto the tunnel walls as she disappears into the darkness. Rose is truly unafraid to follow the implications of his investigations of the nature of language into some dangerous, yet illuminating places.

“The Darkening,” the most recent piece in the collection, is from 2000. The film begins where many of the other films end, with a narrator on the soundtrack softly intoning an urgently visionary tale in an unknown, spontaneously invented tongue. We see a figure “writing” with the light from two flashlights on the dark, nighttime spaces of a garden, the brick wall of a building, and other mysterious structures. The footage has a slower frame rate, so that the gestures of light are more legible, and they are rhythmically linked to the sound of the voice in a way that makes explicit the notion that images here will be both musical and significant. The film continues with a mesmerizing collage of darkened textures illuminated by shifting waves of light. Sometimes these textures are identifiable as a cityscape, a forest, a wire fence. At other times, the textures are more abstracted, yet still grounded in the tactile feel of familiar objects. The opening narration gives way to a collage of sounds: crickets, birds, Bach piano music.

In so many of the other films, there is a feeling that one is in a place of everyday rational discourse, and then one “opens a door” and enters another place where a spontaneously invented language transmits feelings and energy directly to the listener. “The Darkening” feels as if this other place, the place of intuition and spontaneous language, is the film’s starting point, and then, as the spontaneously sounded verbal narration gives way to the more abstract collage of sounds and images, yet another door is being opened into another space, in which all sensations and images become significant. The world is no longer divided between symbol and referent; the sensation of universal significance comes from finding a way of “reading” all experience, as a combination of images, sounds, and feelings which combine to create an experience of interconnectedness. In two decades of work, Rose has indeed taken us along with him on a journey into new realms.

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