If this body-painted, bikini-briefed flute player doesn’t earn a spot on your “Free-form Jazz Odyssey” playlist, you can’t add your song to our Spotify queue.
Spark of Being (2010) is an example of an artist resisting an aesthetic anchor. Bill Morrison‘s films are often categorized as non-narrative and experimental, so the idea of this artist tackling such a perennial chestnut such as “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” leads us to wonder exactly how he is going to deconstruct such a familiar narrative. Throwing out all preconceived assumptions, Morrison pays homage to Mary Shelly and makes her Gothic creation fresh again with a startlingly literal interpretation. Indeed, Spark of Being may be one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of the book to date.
Using found footage, Morrison teams with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas and his electric sextet, Keystone, to illustrate Shelly’s tale. Douglas is an eclectic trumpeter who once worked as a sideman with the John Zorn ensemble Masada. With an original score that is simultaneously mercurial and animated, it is hard to imagine a more perfect composer for Spark of Being.
A frequent (and sometimes justifiable) criticism in films this textured is that the style becomes so all-important the end result is a viewer deprived of a heart to identify with. In short, often, a human element is missing. Morrison has referred to this film itself as “the Creature,” and given the agonized condition of footage chosen, Morrison’s creature may be the most pathos-laden performance of the character since Boris Karloff. One can only imagine the painstaking process it took in assembling Morrison’s creation into a cogent psyche, imbued with personality as predominant “presence.” A popular comparison might be the collaboration between James Whale and Claude Rains in producing a personality-driven Invisible Man (1933), but Morrison’s approach is more innovative, while still being true to the author’s tenets. Douglas’ music provides an informative touch of flesh stretched over the cranium supplied by archival footage from Ernest Shackleton’s film of an Antarctic expedition. As in the novel, the film opens here in the segment titled “The Captain’s Story.” The viewer steps with the Captain in his interaction with creator and created and the unfolding tragic drama.
Through laboratory footage we meet “A Promising Student” and adopt his sense of ambition and wonder. Educational footage and decayed nitrate, which looks hauntingly like an intensely animated closeup of an Emilio Vedova canvas, bring “The Doctor’s Creation” to violent life.
In “The Creature Watches” antiquarian city crowds, desolate landscapes and achingly lonely images of a child endow the creature with a Chaplinesque essence. The psychedelic beauty of “The Creature’s Education” is extended and sublime. The heartbreaking “Observations Of Romantic Love” segues into the bitter sting of ‘The Doctor’s Wedding” and the inevitable dejection of “The Creature in Society.” In “The Creature Confronts His Creator,” the new Adam dares to accuse a negligent father, and in “The Creature’s Pursuit” it is God who is tried and condemned. A justifiable patricide is, perhaps, the greatest burden of all. It is the stuff of horror, even nearly 200 year old horror served up in our own mythological consciousness.
“Everything needs an opposite. We have a White House, so now we need a Black House.”
“The problem with Harlem is too much sex, drugs and violence. If we took all the children of Harlem and made them memorize the names of the 99 Pharaohs then there wouldn’t be sex, drugs and violence in Harlem anymore.”
“The Saturnians told me to play the music of the black prophet, Duke Ellington, but the black man paid no attention so now I am playing the music of the white prophet, Walt Disney, and spreading the shield of his beauty over the face of the Earth so the Saturnians will not destroy us” (followed by a half hour jam of ‘Pink Elephants on parade’ which occasionally sounds like its source material).
Such is the wisdom and personality of the late free jazz artist Sun Ra (paraphrased quotes there, pulled from memory) who apparently (and delightfully) really believed in his own voluptuous excess and gibberish (enough to establish a Space Age monastic communal order among his followers; the Intergalactic Arkestra, and, posthumously, a church named after him). Claiming to be a Saturnian, Sun Ra would appear on stage, dressed in goodwill Pharaoh garb, with the planets of the solar system revolving around his head.
In 1974 Sun Ra made his only film, Space is the Place, directed by John Coney, who also never made another movie. It is an odd artifact, a hybrid of science fiction, blaxploitation and (too little) avant-garde jazz.
In the film, as in life, Sun Ra is the quintessential outsider and space is a metaphorical Eden for this much put upon black man. The plot is threadbare, involving villainous pimps and dealers, Black Panther avenger protagonists, local nightclubs, pool halls, cat houses, and, of course, an Outer Space Continue reading SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974)