Monday, July 13, 2009

Manchester International Festival: It Felt Like a Kiss

I was trying not to look like I was eavesdropping, but I was straining to hear every word. The couple a few tables away were totally absorbed in excited conversation. A few tantilizing phrases floated over the drone of the cricket announcer and the scrape of cutlery:

"... a broken toe"... "completely isolated"... "it was pitch black"..."chainsaw"...


I had maintained a scrupulous information blackout regarding It Felt Like a Kiss, dutifully tuning out reviews and telling my gobsmacked friends I didn't want to know. They all seemed to NEED to talk about it afterwards. I remained in a state of pristine expectation. Still, sipping the recommended stiff drink fifteen minutes before go time at Quay House, I suddenly wondered what the hell I was getting myself into.

A mixed bag, as it turns out. If you haven't seen it yet, look away now.

Adam Curtis' experimental documentary film, orginally made for the BBC but never shown, is the main attraction at the heart of It Felt Like a Kiss, and lends the whole production its title. Like the walk-through theatre experience built around it, is both fascinating and deeply flawed. It aims to pinpoint the moment where the picket-fence-painting, hula-hooping America of the fifties and early sixties climbed to ideological dominance and then curdled, tipping from something big and wonderful and glittering and too powerful to be denied into something sinister, whose long evil fingers reach forward into the present day.

Curtis starts out with the bad shit the CIA got up to during the Cold War and loads on a smorgasboard of conspiracy-theory greatest hits: electroshock therapy, serial killers, military dabblings in LSD, the origin of AIDS, the Black Panthers, BF Skinner's mind control experiments, the Kennedy Assasination and more dodgy US-backed coups and clandestine interventions than you can shake a stick at. While all these fragments successfully build an unsettling mood, they fail to knit together into a cohesive statement of any real power.

It's like that guy in college who liked to get high and talk about the freemasons a lot was given an unlimited budget and turned loose in the CBS archives. It stops short of actually saying the CIA's germ warfare research and imaginative assasination techniques were responsible for the AIDS epidemic, but only just. It is a triumph of suggestion and style over substance.

Still, I enjoyed watching it. It's mostly an unhinged procession of gorgeously edited archive material, a complete pleasure, with a few moments of sheer genius. Some brilliantly selected fragments from a Doris Day movie. And a section where footage of middle-class couples doing The Madison is woven into an explanation of the single bullet theory, complete with diagrams, made me laugh out loud.

The promenade experience surrounding the movie screening was deeply unsettling. It's awash with evergreen fairground creepshow tricks that will not fail to make the most hardened heart pound. I was surprised that there weren't as many actual actors involved in the production as I'd expected, but the dummies were certainly effective enough, if not really very lifelike. The music throughout from the Kronos Quartet and Damon Albarn was solid horror-movie stuff, pulse-quickening but completely overshadowed by the pop songs featured in the film.

It's great having a set you can poke around in at your own pace, a mystery you can actively engage with. Punchdrunk paid attention to smells, which are very important. But there was a lot they didn't pay enough attention to: A weatherbeaten address book full of Clapham and Lewisham, too many books about walking in the Pennine Dales lurking among the Reader's Digest Condensed Books and Phillip K. Dick. Yes, it's tricky to source the right props when mounting a production about the USA in the UK, but surely not impossible. Worst of all were the packs of American Spirit cigarettes littered around the sets. The name is appropriately ironic, but they didn't start making American Sprits until 1982. Lucky Strikes would have been a better choice. Okay, yes, pedant's corner, but it's this lack of attention to detail that erodes your faith in a production while you're in it.

As an AmericanI will doubtless have a different point of view here than most of the punters. I didn't know much about Adam Curtis beforehand, like what his nationality was, but I knew he wasn't American after watching the movie, though I couldn't say exactly why. This could have been a point in his favor: sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as an outsider can (ask the many Americans who devour the Guardian's excellent US coverage). But here Curtis seems both tin-eared, like he never really got America, and hung up on hammering home a very particular point, one that is neither new nor very interesting to me, and I sit in the front row of Curtis' political church choir. Like Michael Moore's stuff, it is basically high quality pinko porn. When I was 18 I'll bet I would have adored it. But frankly, I was hoping for more.


Ruth said...

Great review Kate. I don't think I get out as much as you - I found the total immersion experience really ace. I get your points on detail - there were some things that threw me and I'd have liked a few more actual actors around the place. Some of it was hammered home with a blunt mallet. The documentary sections were very broad and tenuous, I spent time consciously thinking 'is that new or found footage', and I completely get you on the Moore comparisons. But as a narrative I was mainly convinced by the pictures painted (very broad strokes not refined detail). I became a refusenik at the questionnaire manipulation and tired by the very easy cultural references. But I liked the physical / mental rigmarole that it put me through. It really floated my boat as creative production. ace. didn't manage to steal anything though, i kept getting a bit paranoid. getting this out of the way so we can chat about other things on thursday!

Ruth said...

actually, i was finding it a bit funny by the time the chainsaw-man appeared, mainly as jeremy looked very scared and let out a few girly squeaks. i better get back on with my work eh x

Anonymous said...

spot on. Style over substance though very engaging nevertheless. I'm also a bit of a traditionalist and when I see theatre I like to see actors.

This was more of a fancy installation with chainsaw effects!

Anonymous said...

I saw (or experienced) this last night and I accept some of your points about the narrative and the whole message of the piece. I quite liked the way it was more of a exploration of different stories, ideals and themes around at the time and gave you space to think through what you were being asked to view.
I also feel the message was more about the emotional experiences you were made to go through during the piece and how they linked with the themes being explored instead of being given a definitive narrative message.

The set was immense though. I can overlook small things such as UK books as on the whole for a set of this size, with the number of props it was just such a serious feat. Music too was brilliant. The range of lighting methods use throughout to create different moods was ace too.

I wasn't too fussed about the lack of actors - I felt if they'd had more it would of turned more into a house of horror type, Blackpool Pleasure Beach scare-fest. It was more of an intelligent installation using a variety of art forms to push its themes.

I'd read reviews and heard about the chainsaw but still managed to get moderately scarred by it and then final bit in the car park was just brilliant and finished the general unsettling evening off excellently.

Anonymous said...

Good review. I'd echo many of your sentiments and it's interesting to read the views of a real-life American.

I would urge you not to completely give up on the work of Adam Curtis however. I was disappointed in finding the documentary portion of It Felt Like A Kiss to be the weak link in the production. I felt it was disjointed and came across as gauche and little politically naive.

This was a shame as Curtis' work is usually much more clearly thought through and more nuanced. It might be that the documentary here was 30 minutes rather than his usual 3 hours, and lacked his trademark commentary.

I'd recommend having a look at The Century Of The Self, a documentary he did a while ago. It's available on google videos and pulls together some of the ideas in It Felt Like A Kiss much more coherently.

IJ said...

american spirit? didn't seen any of those cigarettes. i went on the first night and it was lucky strike boxes strewn far and wide (although they contained pall mall cigarettes)

Kate Feld said...

Thanks for these thoughts, guys. Many valid points. I will certainly not give up on the work of either Punchdrunk and Adam Curtis. I think my expectations were just so high as I had heard such tremendous things about both of them from many people whose opinions on these things I trust.

IJ, that's weird. They must have changed the cigarettes.