Put Blood in the Music
Dir. Charles Atlas, U.S., 1989
Sight Unseen is an ongoing Reverse Shot series for which writers must view and write an essay on a movie playing theatrically for which they have no prior knowledge whatsoever—only a title and, if necessary, a running time. With Sight Unseen, we hope to cast away the usual presumptions and prior knowledge we have about a film before seeing it.
Let’s face it: even the most studious of us who write about film enter most theaters with preconceptions. No matter how much we may feign a lack of bias, and regardless of how little we think we know about a film going in, we have a certain set of expectations, whether those are determined by knowledge of the director, word of mouth, whatever festival buzz one may have heard of, general understanding of a film’s critical reception, or, if it’s not a new release, some semblance of an idea where to fit and compartmentalize it in film historical terms. Surely the appeal of entering a theater completely blind to what is about to appear on the screen is one other cinephiles share with me—but it’s also one that is difficult to realize, considering the amount of information flying around us at all times.
Things get trickier when one considers how much criticism, from even the greatest and most passionate of writers, comes from received wisdom. For instance, if we see a film from the French New Wave that has somehow slipped by us, made by a director we’ve never heard of, we still bring to the experience passed-down ideas about the era, about what the filmmakers were trying to do, what their techniques represented, and what historical moments they buffeted. It’s an almost subliminal bridge-gapping that we do when faced with the unknown—we must define what it is we’re seeing, quickly, before we fall through the cracks in our knowledge.
Avoiding preconception may be impossible then. But if we were to go into a theater truly cold, without knowing anything about what’s to be projected other than the title and perhaps the running time, what critical faculties would we fall back on? It’s a difficult proposition, perhaps even a game, and maybe it could be viewed as self-serving; we prefer to think of it as exploratory. There’s so much knowledge literally at our fingertips now (one quick imdb click and we know all those reductive things that help us define art: genre, year, country, etc.) that it must perhaps take a willful exercise to get us out of our comfort zones. Thus Reverse Shot’s new recurring feature Sight Unseen, which we hope will be as playful as it is rigorous. The rules are simple: the writer looks at movie listings at local rep houses, museums, cinematheques (or even in some cases first-run theaters), chooses a title they have sincerely never heard of, then sees that movie and writes about it. Will this get us back to a place of pure feeling and aesthetics; or will it somehow become even more cerebral than our normal approach to reviewing, putting us in a defensive posture? Can we successfully communicate the momentary experience when we aren’t necessarily the bringing of entire vocabulary normally at our disposal to bear on the film?
Despite the overwhelming amounts of movies playing on any given day in New York, it’s surprisingly difficult, for the initiated, to find an unfamiliar title. This is not only because these titles are often found in retrospectives focused on known quantities (directors, actors) but also because, if you’re in the know, it’s nearly impossible to avoid reading about something online before it opens. Yet some titles clearly elude us (check out what’s playing at the ReRun Gastropub in Brooklyn to feel really—perhaps blissfully—out of the loop), and others are just obscure enough, and so specialized in focus, that they haven’t broken through to the larger cinephilic culture in any notable way. The latter well defines where I ended up for this inaugural Sight Unseen. Wednesday night, 7 p.m., Museum of Modern Art: Put Blood in the Music, directed by Charles Atlas (not the bodybuilder, I guessed). Loved the title—that’s all I had to go on (that and a sweet 75-minute running time, not that this should be a requisite for these columns). Even better, a short was screening first, also unknown to me: The Feeling of Power, by Robert Beck. Two filmmakers I was not aware of; two titles I found appealingly dramatic.
The short turned out to be a wonderfully cheap and hectic piece of video agitprop from 1990 that largely consisted of footage, shot on 8mm video camcorder, of an AIDS protest outside Trump Tower. This segment is preceded by a slightly shorter video mash-up incorporating everything from surveillance-camera footage to images of Bob Saget on America’s Funniest Home Videos to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” music video, all of it accompanied by in-your-face thrash and splashed with onscreen text in graffiti-like scrawl sometimes feeding the audience historical tidbits about Leo Fender or the recent Tomkins Square Park Riots and other times inciting its audience to “pick up a camera.” Its frenetic low-fi fury was the perfect precursor to Put Blood in the Music, which is an extravagantly ugly, and mostly captivating, documentary about the post-No Wave New York downtown music scene of the Eighties.
Put Blood’s barrage of primitive video effects—which, by superimposing its interview subjects (archivists, critics, musicians) as heads and shoulders free-floating and shifting over images of the city—transform the convention of the talking-heads nonfiction format into something oddly disorienting. At times it’s effectively nerve-jangling (the static, chatting figures of music critics John Rockwell or David Fricke, say, or musician-cum-scenesters Glenn Branca or Lydia Lunch, will swerve back and forth on the screen over handheld shots of the CBGB awning or a movie marquee boasting The Blob and Action Jackson), at others simply cutesy (one interviewee’s head, while waxing rhapsodic, gets disembodied and plastered on a flashing walk signal). But once one gets past this, the doc plays as a fleet, suitably irreverent paean to the era’s musical malcontents and misfits, destined to delight those who get hard-ons the instant the words “knitting” and “factory” are put into the same sentence.
John Zorn and Sonic Youth, unexpectedly, get the lion’s share of the attention here. The former, youthful and relatively sprightly, lazes about indoors in sunglasses and Butthole Surfers T-shirt, surrounded by Tower of Babel–sized stacks of records, giving a rundown of his musical influences (Japanese pop, hardcore, jazz, classical, and, most delightfully, Warner Bros. cartoon scores) and offering the occasional iconoclastic takedown (on the “gutless quality” of John Cage, for instance). Sonic Youth, filmed, I would guess, on the cusp of the release of Daydream Nation, joke around in various studios and lofts, eating cheese puffs and getting tarot readings about their incipient emergence into a more mainstream mode (“Financially, there’s depletion,” the sage fortune teller warns Lee Ranaldo). Meanwhile, the pleasures are greatly visual: Thurston Moore is impossibly young, Kim Gordon is as strikingly, Germanically terrifying as ever, and Steve Shelley is as geekily fresh-faced as Rick Moranis circa Strange Brew. They mostly just chat—and specifically about, as Moore puts it, the potential to morph from “kick-ass” to “kiss-ass” in one feel swoop—but Atlas throws in at least one rousing number, of “Silver Rocket” segueing to “Kissability.”
Perhaps even more enticing, though, are rare performances from Ambitious Lovers, whose lead singer Arto Lindsay, his voice smooth and guttural, like butter on burnt toast (or like a tuneful Lou Reed), knocks a full live-studio recording of “It Only Has to Happen Once” out of the park; and Hugo Largo, filmed at the Central Park Bandshell, lead singer Mimi Goese’s vocals soaring to astonishingly expressive heights. Viewers for these sorts of films are normally the converted, watching them not necessarily to gain knowledge, even if Put Blood in the Music has an instructional video quality (its value as such would largely be dubious anyway, due to its inevitable specificity and insider-ish roster of names). But for me, there was real discovery here, specifically in the songs by Ambitious Lovers and Hugo Largo; they revealed themselves as the best reason to watch Atlas’s film, and perhaps evidence of the value of going to see an unknown entity. I might not have bothered seeing it if I had known what it was going in, and I would have missed these unexpectedly potent moments in time.