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Essay: The desire to stay versus the inevitability of change

Catalogue: Franklin Art Works

By Ben Heywood, Executive Director, The Soap Factory

The Desire to Stay Versus the Inevitability of Change (2008)


If you provide an explanation for the phenomenon then the film becomes science fiction; we’re not making science fiction.

“Birds” is a thriller, hence we leave out any explanation – Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds (1964) [1]

 

The gallery space is in darkness, and on either side of the room runs a single rank of monitors, each on its own white plinth. On each monitor plays a video image of a single individual, waiting silently and watching, out of shot, what must be another monitor (or maybe just a TV set?). They sit patiently, and attentively, but resigned. These are ordinary people: one must assume, by dress and racial make-up, the artist’s friends? They seem to be a pretty representative middle-class lot, young, old, male, female, parents and singles.

The settings in which they are placed are aggressively, uncompromisingly domestic: a son goes to the fridge behind his father, settled on the comfy sofa, to get a soda. On another screen a doorbell rings, someone goes to answer: dogs enters the room, are petted, then shoo-ed away. A woman hugs her comforter closer for warmth, her eyes never leaving the screen (the screen we can’t see) in front of her. A young man with a spiked haircut takes a swig of beer from a can. A boy stares intently, prostrate, arms crossed under his chin in his darkened bedroom, lit only by the blue glow of the screen (that we still can’t see!) in front of him. Who are these people? What are they doing? What are they waiting for? Their body language is all wrong for people at home quietly watching TV. And then they speak.

The sentences are a semblance, a simulacrum, of dialogue, the words making no sense. Their words are intoned and passionless. Worse still, for the viewer, it is clear that they make no sense to speakers either. It is as if they are speaking nonsense, reading random words from their heads. What’s going on? Why are they behaving like this? What’s wrong with these people?

The Desire to Stay versus the Inevitability of Change (2008) morphs the familiar settings of home, hearth and TV into the utterly obscure. This is a world that looks the same, sounds the same, but is seemingly operating on very different rules from our own.  These individuals on each of the monitors appear to be nothing less than inexplicable versions of science fiction pod people [2]. What we appear to be witnessing is nothing less than a domestic apocalypse, as people wait patiently in front of their TV sets, the blank signal washing over them as they await their inevitable end [3].

The work of Lars Jerlach and Helen Stringfellow (tectonic industries) has as a theme, a concern with storytelling and the construction of memory. As immigrants to the USA (from Denmark and the UK) that concern is directed as the particular, peculiar construction of American memory and how American stories are told. For My Wife Is So Proud Of Me…(2002-05), the artists excavated a suburban yard in Wisconsin, and presented the pseudo-archeological artifacts as a narrative of human occupation that was, essentially, that of nothing at all. The Desire to Stay versus the Inevitability of Change (2008) is a similar thought experiment on American story-telling and memory, an experiment conducted with the single-minded rigorous and accurate discipline of the film director and auteur. [4]

The experiment is one of meaning and authenticity in contemporary culture. The action is to take an existing cultural artifact (in this case, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film of The Birds [5]), and purge it of all meaning, save for bare narrative itself; the text as written [6]. By stripping the film bare of all clues to its narrative, the experiment intends to examine how we, as passive consumers of popular culture, recognize and re-tell the stories of our culture. In an age were we can know every detail [7] of every aspect of every artifact, where does the true experience of culture lie?

Thus the choice of The Birds as the vector for this thought experiment is inspired; a film with no soundtrack, a limited set of well defined characters, and a movie rooted in genre convention and at the same time off-the-wall bizarre. It is a film that we have all heard of, and that, in the simple of act of reading its title, tells us its plot. Yet it’s clear, as we engage with The Desire to Stay versus the Inevitability of Change (2008), that while we have the ability to ‘know’ everything about a film, what we lack is the authentic experience of the film itself. Thus the narratives that we construct for these artifacts are ones that we perform ourselves. These are narratives of hearsay, gossip and conjecture, or autistic tangles of interlocking facts, nuggets of information paraded as a substitute for knowledge. In their reductive experiment, the artists have made a passionate plea for authenticity in cultural experience.

The irony of The Desire to Stay versus the Inevitability of Change (2008), however, is that while the piece ostensively exists to interrogate our own passivity when confronted with our own culture, and makes a case for an authenticity of experience, the experience of the work itself, in the darkened gallery, eerily cycles The Birds back round to an original, unintended authenticity. Divorcing the narrative from Hitchcock’s admittedly bizarre and disturbing neo-surrealist images of a sunny northern Californian town mysteriously besieged by birds, replete with the usual Hitchcock tropes of feisty blonde, spurned brunette, straight-edge hero and creepy mother, The Desire to Stay versus the Inevitability of Change (2008), creates an intimate and domestic disquiet much closer to the original novella. [8] Stripped of all that we know of it, The Birds, mutated into The Desire to Stay versus the Inevitability of Change (2008), becomes a set of forever isolated individuals, staring at the TV screen, smoking their last cigarette, waiting passively for the end of the movie, accepting that in the absence of knowledge we can only experience, and when experience is ended, all we are given to do is to wait patiently for our next line.

 

 

 


[1]  The Birds was originally a novella by the English writer Dame Daphne du Maurier (Du Maurier’s most famous novel is Rebecca, filmed by Hitchcock in 1940 with Lawrence Olivier. She was married to Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, disasterous British airborne commander at Arnham, played by Dirk Bogarde in A Bridge Too Far 1977). The Birds was first published in 1952 in the short story collection The Apple Tree. Hitchcock made The Birds in 1963, with newcomer Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor (the star of George Pal’s The Time Machine and, in 1970, Michelangelo Antonini’s Zabriskie Point), and Veronica Cartwright (Cartwright’s tearful whining stood her in good stead for Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979). This was the first film that Hitchcock worked with Albert Whitlock, a fellow expatriate and Oscar-winning matt painting expert who created the vistas of the seaside town and the birds. The film has no musical score, but all the bird sounds are electronic, created by Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane 1941, Jason and the Argonauts 1963, Taxi Driver 1976). The film is to be remade by producer Michael Bay with Naomi Watts and Directed by Martin Campbell (Edge of Darkness BBC TV 1985, Golden Eye 1995, Casino Royale 2007).

[2] Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956), based on a short story by Jack Finney (The Body Snatchers 1954), and directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry 1971, Charlie Varrick 1973) Remade in 1978 with Donald Sutherland, it was remade again 1993 by Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer 1979, Bad Lieutenant 1992) as The Body Snatchers, and finally in 2007 became The Invasion, with Nicole Kidman.

[3] I am Legend, a novella by Richard Matheson (who wrote Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first feature), filmed as The Last Man On Earth (1964), with Vincent Price, and as The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston (part of his trilogy of survivalist desperation including Soylent Green 1973 and Planet of the Apes 1968), and most recently with Will Smith as I am Legend 2008.

[4] Before filming the final attack scene when Melanie goes upstairs to her doom, Tippi Hedren asked Alfred Hitchcock, “Hitch, why would I do this?” Hitchcock’s response was, “Because I tell you to”.

[5] Op cit

[6] The script for The Birds is by Evan Hunter, who as Ed McBain wrote the 87th Precinct hard-boiled police procedurals, 56 books from 1956 to 2005.

[7] Tippi Hedren’s silver roadster is a 1954 Aston Martin DB2/4 Mk1 (very appropriate for a feckless heiress), and that when persued by the birds from the schoolhouse, she and Veronica Cartwright take refuge in a 1960 Dodge Polera, while Jessica Tandy, rather mysteriously, favours a 1956 Ford F250 pick-up. I can also tell you that it was Albert Whitlock who created matt paintings that allowed Paul Newman to roam through East Berlin in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966), and that Whitlock’s last film was the Antarctic vistas for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

[8] Du Maurier was writing in the British tradition of the domestic apocalypse, perhaps best exemplified by the work of John Wyndham (The Day of The Triffids 1951 The Kraken Wakes 1953, The Midwich Cuckoos 1957), John Christopher (Death of Grass 1955, A Wrinkle in the Skin 1965, Empty World 1977), where the war-time ethos of “keep calm and carry on” and the disappointment a poverty of the late 1940’s was synthesized with the squalor and hopelessness of a nation defeated by an implacable and inexplicable enemy in a stoic existentialism. This theme in British fantastic literature reaches its apotheosis in the work of J G Ballard (The Drowned World 1962, The Crystal World 1966, The Atrocity Exhibition 1969, Crash 1973)

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