Rocket Opera

Above:  Writer David Cox, Soprano Rachel Levin, and Baritone John Smalley

Writer/composer/video artist David Cox, with Art Director Molly Hankwitz and a talented cast of singers and musicians have created Rocket Opera, a rock operetta that musically examines the history of space exploration, specifically during the 20th Century superpower Space Race. The operetta presents three acts titled: Cosmonauts on the Moon, Lunar Modules, and First Women in Space. Each act appeared separately at Other Cinema between 2014 and 2016, and together would excel as a full opera.  The production marries ambition and underground ethos as a carefully studied, grass roots display of mixed genre extravaganza.

The first act, Cosmonauts on the Moon, discusses the former Soviet Union’s failed mission to the moon, a casualty of political manipulations that strained the mission before it was technically mature. Lunar Modules describes details of the development of the US Apollo 11 rocket and its lunar module that landed on the moon in 1969, thanks in part to software engineer Margaret Hamilton. First Women in Space compares stories of Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova and American space pioneer Sally Ride. As a whole, the opera covers historical territory in a way that is coherent, entertaining and metaphorical.

David Cox states:

Both sides lost astronauts and cosmonauts to terrible oxygen-fueled fires, both experienced massive, fatal explosions and both sides faced the terror of the unknown beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The USA and USSR were, through their enmity, unable to share fully anything that might genuinely assist what might be called a truly global [international] scientific space project. Space Programs were framed as singular, national, geopolitical events with heavy military overtones.

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Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space

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Sally Ride, the first American woman in space

Musically, the operetta slides between moody art rock, 60s psychodelia and jazz. It features songs with titles such as Institutional Inertia and Flames Appear, all delivered with heavenly, classically-trained vocals against a backdrop of fiery video montage. It would thrive in a full production, with more gestural shape, blocking, and a bigger stage. After all, what would be a more suitable topic for the epic scale of opera than two competitive superpowers vying for landmark discoveries in the astral realm?

Check out this in-depth interview of David Cox: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/rocket-opera-pays-homage-to-women-of-the-space-race

Stage Credits

Rocket Opera: An Operetta in 3 Parts by David Cox.

Live musicians:

The Performers:
Rachel Levin (Soprano): Valentina Tereshkova
Ania Samborska (Soprano): Soviet Ambassador, Sally Ride
John Smalley (Baritone): Pentagon Spokesperson, Sergei Korolev
Simon Cox: The Voice of Reason

Percussion: Jonathan Parnell
Wind Instruments: Zachary Fischer
Guitars: Jono Jones
Keyboards: David Cox

Art Direction: Molly B. Hankwitz,
Props: Simon Cox
Libretto, Music Compositions: David Cox
Music Arrangements: Jono Jones
Additional Music Composition: John Smalley, Jono Jones

URL for the opera:

http://www.rocketopera.net

 

Acts and Intermissions

San Francisco Mission District’s Other Cinema featured film experimentalist Abigail Child last Saturday night, with her new 57 minute film Acts and Intermissions.  It was preceded by her 2004 short The Future Is Behind You. Child’s work blooms from the soils of the academic experimental film world, crafted with an East Coast sensibility: studious, meticulous, theory-based, and low-budget. Her films display a unique mastery of both form and content, graced with delicate editing, and colored by whispering sound designs which are all her own.

The Future Is Behind You, a work of sheer archival beauty, fabricates a film story of a Jewish family’s displacement and murder, interpreted from scraps of German home movies from the 1930’s. It delivers history from the inside out, bringing nuance to a familiar story of holocaust. Child interrogates the footage with repetition, zooms, slow motion, and flipflopping screen direction, foregrounding moments of laughter over impending terror. The daily joys of two sisters provide a filter — sifting historical events in bits and pieces, treating history as a moving, incomplete process, centralized by real lives.

Arts and Intermissions uses similar techniques from the point of view of famed anarchist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). The film challenges the viewer by creating an impressionist painting of her life, an assemblage of dots, with heavy use of onscreen text, drawn from Goldman’s letters and diaries. Child uses Emma Goldman to make a film that is not quite about Emma Goldman, but about cycles of political resistance in the last century and a half. The style undermines expectations of traditional historical biography, and may better coalesce if you study the basic facts of Goldman’s life before seeing it. When I asked the filmmaker about her choice to include only a handful of images of Emma Goldman, Child replied that she was trying to “disperse [Emma] into the present.”

Indeed, remarkable early-20th century protest footage interlaces with recent scenes of mass resistance. The film also includes contemporary scenes of workers in a yarn factory. These surreal shots of beautiful mess and mechanization, establish the film’s ground in a Marxist viewpoint. Another recent biographical documentary,  I Am Not Your Negro, about author James Baldwin, similarly interweaves images of past and present. (See my February 12th blog post)  The days of the traditional documentary, with its objectifying, distanced historical perspective, seem to be over. These films suggest there’s no longer space to simply observe. However we choose to act, history is living us, and we are participants.

Häxän Project

Above:  performance by the Church of Color and Light

Last night, Other Cinema hosted a gathering of witches, both embodied and bound in celluloid. The night began with a brewing of cups by the Church of Color and Light, a local ritualistic performance collective that uses overhead projection, dance movement, and incantation for audience involvement and transformation. One slithering spirit even abandoned a rubber snake in my lap. Soundtracked by the buzzing of flies, their cultus ceremony set tone for a spooky evening with intermittent camera flashes punctuating the dark.

Cohesively curated experimental film and video from past iterations of the Häxän Festival filled the remainder of the evening’s program. Häxän celebrates witchcraft and the personal occult from a feminine perspective, with all works curated and made by women. The program was strong yet scrappy, with a generous dose of silence and nudity. A couple of pieces veered too close to the works of experimental film great Maya Deren (unsurprisingly) and animator Lewis Klahr, to be truly original.  But the lovely, ghostly Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares seemed outright possessed with its multi-exposed film frames trembling and twitching.

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Trapped Between Frames by Nazare Soares

Saturn Return was the other standout. This homemade video set on a rocky Mexican outcropping featured creators Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer in a smart and satirical take on astrology, self-help and the nature video. Creative costuming and absurd dialogue left us laughing at the enactments of a string of relationship breakups triggered by the unpredictable age of 29-1/2, otherwise known as the dreaded Saturn Return.

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Saturn Return by Ale Bachlechner and Olivia Platzer

Photos by Kristin Cato

Banksy Does New York

Above:  Everything But the Kitchen Sphynx

“A 1/36 scale replica of the great Sphinx of Giza made from smashed cinderblocks. You’re advised not to drink the replica Arab spring water.”  ~Banksy

Other Cinema presented Street Art Saturday night, a program beginning with shorts and a lecture, anchored with Banksy Does New York, a documentary of the anonymous artist’s month long “residency” in the streets of New York.  Banksy sparked a daily treasure hunt by creating an original work each day in October 2013, presenting each piece on his website with no location. Check out the trailer here.

I lived through this event, waking up each October morning to experience daily reveals of brilliant wit and prank, and watched the phenomena unfold on social media in real time. It’s an experience hard to replicate in retrospect, but the documentary captures the thrill and frenzy. It follows Banksy-hunters around Manhattan and its boroughs and records the social fallout of exorbitantly-priced artist acts publicly abandoned in obscure corners. The film provides followup on the fate of the artworks, and offers interpretations by cultural theorists and participants. Mayhem ensues as public response becomes performance, where the pieces get variously defined:  valuable loot by opportunists, crime by the police, precious “cultural currency” by connoisseurs, and irrelevant by gallery owners.

The film was preceded by a slide lecture by Russell Howze, author of Stencil Nation.  Howze, an expert in all things stencil, presented the history of stencil art from Indonesian cave art to Banksy and beyond, with a focus on Banksy’s 2010 six-day tagging of  San Francisco. I am eager to hunt for what survives of these works, locations listed here.

With Banksy/Not Bansky comparisons, the slideshow illustrated Banksy precursors and influencers, fakes, and Banksy-esque conspirators worldwide, such as Hanksy and Bambi. It was a fascinating report of the fluid and unregulated world of street art where influences move quickly, artist brands shift to ephemera, and stencil culture extends to war zones. Check out Russell Howze’s website:  http://www.stencilarchive.org

Pixilation Prodigies at Other Cinema

ATA Gallery was stuffed to the gills last night with an audience eager to injest a program of high caliber, mostly local animation work. Politically-tinged experimental shorts introduced the show, then Jeremy Rourke transported us through dreamy ruminations of his shifting studio coordinates in Goodbye Cole/Hello Tunnel. Cutouts of vintage imagery, postcards springing into action, and layers of clay, video, and pencil peeled off into nested realities. Adding spoken word, song, and guitar, Rourke jumped on and off a podium to interact with the projections in surprising ways. With exuberant splash, his inventions brought the audience to cheers. I highly recommend you look out for more performances of Jeremy Rourke, possibly next season at Other Cinema!

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Facing West Shadow Opera then performed an ode to Walt Whitman, celebrating links between opera and nature in the settling of the Wild West. Two opera singers and a cello gave a flawless classical performance. However, music outpaced the visuals. Delicate and beautiful shadow puppets required surer hands and precise direction. At times their movements felt more awkward than graceful. The narrative, with bulky intertitles, fell flat.

The Academy Award nominated short Last Day of Freedom, directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, concluded the program with a somber note. It told the story of Manny Babbitt, a traumatized Vietnam war veteran who ended up on death row through a tragic miscarriage of justice. The pencil drawn animation and rotoscoping of the veteran’s brother sensitively expressed this disturbing story.

Photos by Kristin Cato

Black Spirituals at Other Cinema

The Black Spirituals, a two-man band made up of Zachary James Watkins and Marshall Trammell, opened the “Black Lives Matter” program at Other Cinema last night.  Serving as a benefit for NOW!, an online zine that marries experimental form with radical politics, the night’s programming showed off Black activist video and artful deconstructions of historical crimes against African Americans.

The Black Spirituals set the tone with their radical post-rock urgencies:  improvisational, cacophonous and sophisticated.  Incorporating textures of free jazz, hard rock, and electronica, their elongated sounds crashed over the audience like slow motion tsunamis.  Percussive tidepools swelled into ecstatic gutteral rage, exerting more visceral protest than Peter Menchini’s Waking Up Chief Suhr, the video document showing Black Lives Matters activists outside the San Francisco police chief’s bedroom window at 4am.  The root-tails of the Black Spirituals reach deep, tapping historical torments, which unleash sheer musical explosion, with audio levels assaulting the ears before ebbing back to ripples.   I have long believed no instrument expresses raw suffering rubbed up with anger better than a grinding electric guitar, and this group proves it so.

Here is an interview of the Black Spirituals about their collaboration and process:  http://alibi.com/music/47491/Postmodern-Black-Spirituals.html

 

 

Winnipeg Handshake

Other Cinema, gnarly underground film enclave in the Mission District, welcomed a hardy troupe of Winnipeggers last Saturday night.  The array of 16 films showed a commitment to experimentation as well as to core materials: 16mm, super8, and film projectors kicking up corn dust.  Influences were drawn from a wide range of the cinema history spectrum: from docucomedy to structuralist video to rapid fire animation to silent film.  The highlight was Aaron Zeghers’ Holland, MAN, an expanded cinema showpiece featuring five finely choreographed projectors.  This moving mosaic of farmland, skies, and snowfields beautifully celebrated and mourned the retirement of the filmmaker’s family farm in Southern Manitoba.

 

Photo by Aaron Zeghers