Hallucinating Through the Inkwell

Folks that know me are generally aware of my being a cinephile. If I’m not playing, making, or listening to music, I am watching a movie. And within that side of me, I have a deep passion for early animations. These films, as commercial and child-friendly as they may seem, have a truly surreal and, by today’s standards, “avant-garde” mentality — exploring rules of time, space, gender, and embracing the new medium of film by not just pushing, but BREAKING its bounderies.

I wrote a short score for the 1932 Betty Boop/Bimbo animation, “Bimbo’s Initiation”, scored for 2 bassoons (Dark & Stormy is the name of the group). It began as a one-off commission, but has quickly sprouted wings into a suite of music written for and inspired by more “experimental” animations. I’ve finished another piece for the Yuri Norstein film, “The Battle at Kerzhenets”, and I’m working on an piece based on the Out Of the Inkwell-series film, “Earth Control”.

Someone suggested I contact Molly Surno, who runs a series called “Cinema 16”, which puts on events of experimental silent films coupled with original music, performed by different groups each time. In my search for more and more “dissident” animations, I’d stumbled upon the abstract films of people like Oscar Fischinger, Robert Breer, Michael Snow, and other abstract film-makers. These films felt very stale; seen on a computer or TV screen, the random images and shapes quite often flat and life-less. The films seemed more like child-hood drawings, with bright colors and shapes, than mature and subtle films. It couldn’t help me to relate more with the Mel Brooks satire of this genre (and also HIS first film!).

The curation for the “Cinema 16” show was 4 similar films in this genre : Standish Lawder’s “Color Film” (1971), Viking Eggeling’s “Symphonie Diagonal” (1924), Len Lye’s “Color Cry”, and Sabrina Ratte’s “Mirages (2010). I must say, it was WONDERFUL to see these films projected from beautiful prints, in a packed audience that was enraptured by them. The films really came to life, and the colors and shapes no longer felt flat and stale. The crowd was engaged and electric, and you could feel it. That energy alone really translated to the experience. Unlike modern films, where one goes to “see the film on the big screen”, older films actually benefit greatly from the communal experience, from the energy and excitement of watching it with a few hundred other people.

This was coupled by the beautiful and trans-like score by Matteah Baim, using only a laptop and guitar. Molly Surno’s introduction touched on the relationship between hallucinations and film, which was the undercurrent through all these films. Baim’s score really drove that energy home. Each piece was very dream-like, and segued all the pieces together.

The winner, for me, and a great discovery, was the film by Len Lye. It was the only one that really came across as an emotional piece, and truly moved me. I’ve since seen quite a few of his films. Naturally, his first and most important film, “The Color Box” (1935) has a great soundtrack — a mambo by Don Barretto, a piece which I’ve listened to many times. Of course it does.

My life seems to run in circles, and everything connects. This night was no different.

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