Thursday, March 04, 2004

Does all pop culture have the same rhythm? Leslie Thornton queries Jonny Quest in Another Worldy (1999). But let’s ask Mary Ann Doane (whose book The Emergence of Cinematic Time is essential): “Another Worldy is a revision of an older film by Thornton, Old Worldy (1998), which juxtaposes old Hollywood footage of dance sequences (from the 1930s or 1940s), ethnographic footage of ritualized dances from ‘primitive’ cultures, and an ironic rendition of 1990s techno-ambient disco rock on the soundtrack. The new film produces fascinating collisions and correspondences between the different materials, pressuring dangerously fixed assumptions about racism, sexism, and the ethnographic gaze. The film encourages tension but refuses easy satire and the assumption of a superior position.” From old world to another (newer) world, then. But the film begins in an older cinematic world, where 1940s Lucky Girl dancers kick a leg out to their Russian, Indian, and North African counterparts. As the film moves from familiar western haunts to unfamiliar orientalized orbits, it struck me that this truly is another world, because it can’t possibly be this one. And – but how could this be? – they’re all dancing to the same rhythm. And it even matches the (horrid) gothic-techno soundtrack. Thornton: “I was thinking about how popular entertainment is derived from forgotten pasts, from ritual, religion and war, from various symbolic, practical and worldly forms of movement. With reworking, Old Worldy evolved into something more nuanced and critically oriented than I originally imagined it being. There was a point when I had to give it another name--it was becoming another work altogether. I spent more than a year looking at ethnographic dance material, some ‘scientifically’ serious, some ‘educational,’ some what I call ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’-type travelogs and some newsreels. Another Worldy operates as an implicit, cross-cultural critique of dance forms and their origins. I wanted to hold on to the entertainment value and uncanny qualities of Old Worldy while bringing forth a more implicit critique.”

Elsewhere, in her masterpiece Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985-2004), a boy and a girl, Fred & Wilma of the post-apocalyptic set, thrash about a Paul McCarthyesque type workroom while reciting King of Pop lyrics and eating Cap’n Crunch. No, in 1985 she couldn’t possibly have known how creepy a little girl singing Billy Jean was to be. But from all accounts, the film seemed so futuristic in the 80s, while today, after 9-11, after Total Information Awareness, it seems simply of its time, an ethnography of the present. Who said that the future of the future is the past? With this film, Thornton burns the edge of narrative; as she puts it: “Narrative reflects specific cultural presumptions. Recognizing that, one can't help but think: then there must be other possibilities for narrative – reflecting other times and places and agendas, past, present, and future.” Peggy and Fred in Hell is the most tedious yet utterly fascinating film I have ever seen. To which Thornton answers: “I'm interested in boredom. My interest comes out of the experience of the most hardcore structuralist films from the '60s and '70s. I think these films often produced profound boredom, which forced you somewhere else . . .. you have a profound response, if you commit to stay. You feel you've had a life-changing experience. A voluntary experience of boredom. The mind becomes very active. All kinds of images and scenarios begin to play.”

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