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.