9 Songs - Michael Winterbottom - 2004 - UK - Keiran O’Brien - Margot Stilley
Tyneside Film Theatre 2 April 2005 - price £5-95
Performance as Dick-tat
During the opening sequence of 9 Songs a small plane flies over the icescape of Antarctica - or what Keiran O’Brien in voice over claims is Antartica. As the shadow of the plane travels across the ice Keiran O’Brien (KOB) says that: he will always remember her smell the texture the feel of her skin. That’s what he says. But a question raised by the film is who is KOB? Is he KOB himself or a character in a film? Depending on the reply will he always remember the her smell and the feel of her skin; or will he actually remember the whir of the camera and Michael W and cameraman’s faces squeezed towards him as he fucks Margot Stilley(MS) or she fucks him.
9 Songs takes its form its from the intercutting of three sections: 9 Songs performed at the Brixton Academy(where KOB and MS meet each other): short sequences from ‘the Antarctic which permit KOB voiced geophilosophic musings on the nature world and of permanence of memory; and scenes from the relationship between MS and KOB. The performances of bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are not immediately problematic. The depicted relationship of KOB and MS(which Winterbottom contrives as a chronological story voiced by the male, with a beginning a middle and an end) raises some issues. This section is defined and expressed on film, mainly but not entirely, by scenes of supposedly unsimulated hard-on fucking and licking. This is the heart of the film. The performances of KOB and MS touch on issues central not just to the film but also to a critical socio-cultural movement away from the rigid lines that define the performed and actual - a line that Performance artists have always explored - but which the acting profession struggles to maintain.
Is there or is there not a line separating the frame of acting from the frame of the real? Have the times blown apart and away the distinctions between performance and actual so that the expressive plastic arts are celebrated on the plateau of the now. For in these times there is only: now and then; in and out. What will KOB and MS remember and take away from the experience - anything or nothing: the memories of each others smells and intensities - apologies to each other - satisfaction at a job well done, the film in the can - resentments at Winterbottom?
The sex scenes were graphically and somatically real. Perhaps prosthesis was used occasionally in the filming; but we are ‘told’ (and that’s important; though do film publicists never lie…?) the sex was for real and mostly it looked dripping and tumescent body parts - sex organs which are connected to our strongest drives, emotions and increasingly self image. Or perhaps not? Everyone’s different, actors and actresses no less anyone else. Actors spend much time and expenditure of energy in faking emotionally charged drives and states: fear, remorse, sorrow, dispair, anger etc. Actors train to develop an expressive range of facial and bodily responses for displaying through simulation and mimicry these arousal’s. Actors also develop skills for enacting (faking) physical acts - dying - being wounded - being tortured - panicking - and sex. Psychic involvement with character allows the actor to explore the parameters and ranges of responses - while always retaining expressive control needed for direction. Actors sometimes seem to utilise a form of mild self hypnosis that allows complete identification with the part whilst in character, but enables this state to be shaken off quite quickly when role is dropped, set left and cues of everyday life re-introduced. (most players move in and out of role with relative ease, but failure to master this knack can cause personal and career problems). Why in this film did Winterbottom demand that his actors perform actual sex, rather than ask them to fake simulate and act out the action? This could have been done, but it would have been a different film with a different point.
The point about ‘acting’ is(was?) not to engage in real physical acts because real acts may have real physical consequences. The traditional trick is to make the emotional experience real because engagement with feelings is through psychological mechanisms and triggers( as well as the whole mis-en-scene) Actions involving potentially fateful engagement with others are traditionally all simulations: fights - injuries - murders - slaps - full kissing - sex. You do have a physical theater of the body based on dance, gymnastics, acts and feats of strength stamina and endurance. But in the case of physical theatre there is the absolute injunction to take care - of yourself and the other. The ethos of acting has been to fake action using mime skilled simulation use of prostheses and careful rehersal etc. It is based on a notion that if there was a real engagement of the body, if the slap to the face was real, if the cut and blood drawn were real, the line would be crossed and actors would no longer be having to deal with a fabricated scenario but an event with real consequences for them and acting relationships; the cost would also be unpredictable loss of expressive control which the contriving machine - the camera or theatre was attempting to impose.
The trends in public entertainment have mostly been to move away from the traditional boundary lines of acting on stage or the film set. The movement is towards creating new machines where manipulation and exploitation of the real, of the visceral can be presented as entertainment with actual consequences. Reality TV as a sort of Roman circus where there is expectation that participants will experience ‘real stress’ ‘real pain’ not the acted out faked stuff in a bottle of theatrical make up. The line mapping the border between the real and faked is blurred and crossed. Participants are subjected to both psychological and physical stress in a manner in which the authenticity of reaction is ensured.
The blurring between doing and being has long been the working assumption of both the pornography industry and the sado masochistic industry. Both these expressive industries(including snuff movies) have progressively edged into mainstream media in the form of girly mags like Cosmopolitan and the Male laddish press. Sex in the porntrade is not performance art - the players in pornographic films simply put in their days at the office, projecting themselves into doing sex. Most of these performers stake little claim to thespian status: their cocks tits and orifaces are the business and the stars of the system are supposed know how to look after themselves physically and psychologically. (Though exploitation is rife and the industry has serious casualties). The sex performers whether on stage screen or behind the curtains of the brothel may use mechanisms of distance and deterritorialisation from their working bodies. These are shizoid psychic shifts of conscousness(sometimes anaesthetizing) that in themselves do not involve acting skills .
In some respects the acting profession has also incorporated trends from these marginal zones. This blurring - merging - this lack of discontinuities - between being and doing. Actors are increasingly pressured (by society? By producers and directors?) to become their roles. It’s what we come to expect. An actress works as a waitress to prepare herself for a role, which in itself is more important than scenario or text. But it’s not just an issue acquiring a mind set or gestural vocabulary: there are also demands that the body must be prepared. Christian Bale to become the Mechanic(“ Total Film”) undertakes a three month ordeal of starvation to reduce weight and find the character. The body becomes the central spectacle for our gaze. We are back to the circus where the spectacle is at the centre of the arena. Discontinuities. What special preparations, exercises did KOB and MS undertake to ready themselves for 9 Songs?
This is what 9 Songs points to. The inexorable movement in entertainment towards the exploitation of the actual. Perhaps its corollary is inexorable movement in the other direction in film, towards the exploitation of the virtual, in that digital technologies are taking over huge swathes of the action images to the extent that it may soon be possible for films to star digital actors and actresses. How interesting to see digital beings fuck? 9 Songs asks an ethical question at the core of the of the socioentertainment culture about whether distinctions between the forms of the faked and the real have any meaning for us. And in this 9 Songs is a moral statement. We are moving into an ethos where the issue is that for many audiences the real has an overwhelming authenticity of effect. And the image industry exists to fulfill the expectations of its audiences. All those engaging in it will have to adapt to this transformation, that we are moving into a culture of discontinuities in which acted sequences will be replaced by the real with real consequences for the performers. How long before an actor(agreeing freely in his contract) agrees to be shot and killed as part of a sequence in a movie. It’ll be real though it won’t look any different from the faked. But we will be told its real. This is the song that 9 Songs sings.
The film also calls attention to another interesting aspect of sociocultural experience and that is the nature of performance itself. In 9 Songs music is performed; sex is performed; (a Voice Over snow is performed but this is an acted faked sequence; or is it?). The music gigs and the sex have the same attributes in that they are real and presented as such. But what is the connection between real performance and feeling? There is no necessary connection: on tour, bands perform their songs every night and from their performance ellicit strong emotional reactions from audience(just like Hitler). But the bands don’t actually have to feel anything. In performance they can connect with their gestures and actions, they can surf the power unleashed and the reaction to the power unleashed. As they actually make the music they perform it out but they don’t have to feel anything - even though the audience does. Similarly with sex as performance. Sex may be performed with great prowess, drawing on a knowledge and confidence both in your own body and in other bodies, but as sex becomes performance so link to feeling becomes another discontinuity. Cultures based on actual performance tend to deterritorialise emotional feeling. Did KOB and MS have feelings when they fucked, or like porntrade stars did they adopt strategies of self alienation or whatever? Having no access to states of mind obviously these sort of questions cannot be answered. But at the end of 9 Songs the feeling that came through for me was one of emotional deadness and flatness(matching the male voice over - and why did Micheal W chose the male party to tell the story?) Emotional deadness is a possible price for the uncoupling of action and feeling a process that is also part of the machine of mainstream culture production.
Adrin Neatrour 5 April 2005