'FEATURE FILM' by Douglas Gordon RFH, 24 June 2000
Douglas Gordon is a conceptual artist who works in film. The winner of the 1996 Turner Prize, his reputation rests very largely on a single piece of work: '24 Hour Psycho', a silent re-rendering of the classic Hitchcock film slowed down from 24 frames per second to a speed of two frames per minute, thus stretching the action from 109 minutes to (as the title implies) an entire day.
His most recent work, 'Feature Film', which received its premiere at the Royal Festival Hall as part of Scott Walker's 'Meltdown' season, is again an act of homage to & a deconstruction of a work by Hitchcock, in this case his 1958 masterpiece 'Vertigo', starring James Stewart as a private eye with a pathological fear of heights & Kim Novak as the (apparent) double of Stewart's dead love, who had (apparently) committed suicide by leaping from a tower. This is a film of sexual obsession, melodramatic climaxes & implausible twists & turns - a bleak work, by comparison with which, as one critic has observed, 'Psycho' is a rich comedy of manners.
Quite what was in store for the audience at 'Feature Film' was unclear, & the advance publicity was intentionally vague: describing the work as 'a psychological portrait, a mesmerising soundtrack & a motion picture', & not wishing, as it were, to give away the plot, it stated that 'working with Bernard Hermann's dizzying score, Gordon has arranged a divorce between sound & image & orchestrated a new affair'.
What in fact the work consists of is a relentless gaze - recalling, in a sense, the voyeurism of the Hitchcock original - at the hands, forearms & face of James Conlon, conductor of the Paris Opera, as he conducts a symphony orchestra performing the score of 'Vertigo'.
Visually the piece is extremely minimal. The fact that Conlon is wearing a black sweater with the sleeves pushed back & that he is photgraphed against a near-black background, means that all one sees, like images from a late Beckett play, are the disembodied hands & face of the conductor - shown in close-up, rarely together on screen - as they control & move in rhythm with the sounds of the orchestra.
As with '24 Hour Psycho', there would have been, had it been screened in a gallery rather than a concert hall, a strong temptation to watch the piece for a few minutes, get the measure of it, & then move on. Indeed, perhaps a third of the audience did leave before the end of the eighty-minute screening.
Those of us who remained, however, recognizing what we were in for, settled down to experience the work in its own terms. Denied Hitchcock's plot & dialogue & the very striking visuals of the original film, we were left with a soundtrack which, whilst undeniably dramatic, had the feeling of being less a score in its own right than an 'underscoring', a reinforcement of a no longer existent narrative, accessible only to those who had seen the film & remembered its plot.
Recontextualised by Douglas Gordon, the music becomes the score of the drama on the screen before us, conveying a sense of emotion, rather than concentration, in the tightly-framed shots of Conlon's face - which on two occasions, in homage to the original, focus on a single eye - & on the ever-moving hands, which at moments seem nervous & tense, as though about to strangle or to shove into space an unseen victim.
The dramatic rises & falls in the music, unprompted by narrative, seem to give shape to what is inevitably a very repetitious set of images. The film works well in visual terms, in part because of its extremely skilful editing & its constantly shifting interplay with the rhythms of the music. Another element which gave me pleasure - & in a piece so minimal one looks for the smallest of gestures - was the fact that, as the film progresses, the images move towards a tighter framing, with the result that they become more 'abstract', the passage of a hand moving through frame occasionally leaving a strobing afterimage or creating a blurred flurry of skin tone against black. It's an accomplished piece of work.
That having been said, one might well ask whether it was all worth doing?
I would say 'yes', although eighty minutes is a long time, & even the most committed viewer would have glanced occasionally at his or her luminous watch during the course of the film. And the music, fine though it was in its original context, didn't seem to me to be quite strong enough to stand alone - it had, after all, been written to go underneath dialogue. I was reminded of how, when going to the cinema as a child, in the days of continuous screenings, I would wait outside the auditorium, hearing the muffled soundtrack of the final minutes of the preceding screening, rather than go inside, see the end, & have the plot spoiled for me.
'Feature Film' leaves one feeling that the whole thing will only really make sense when you go inside & see the film proper - which one should, of course, do. As Kim Novak says at one point in 'Vertigo', 'Couldn't you like me, just me, the way I am ?'
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