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Monday, 26 May 2014

The Public Voice (1988)

Director: Lejf Marcussen

While it was never the original intention, my focus here at Apocalypse Later has gradually become over time to review the sort of films that most people don't review. This is a great example: a short animation from Denmark, released over a quarter of a century ago, written and directed by a man with few films to his name (after this 1988 film, IMDb only lists Angeli, a short musical animation made in 2002). It has no characters and no dialogue, except for a few odd phrases that leap out from the odd soundtrack. Most of its running time consists of one reverse zoom: the camera appears to pull back at a consistent speed for eight minutes. In quick summary, it sounds like not much at all, but it's one of the most amazing pieces of visual art that I've ever seen and it's stayed with me for 25 years, from a time before the internet when I had no way to translate the original title, Den offentlige røst, into English, merely remember the words. Now, Google quickly tells me that it translates to The Public Voice, the name of the painting at its core.

I first saw Den offentlige røst on British television, probably on BBC2 in the late eighties, soon after it was made, as a time filler in between regular programmes. What I recorded on my VCR that caught this up in its net has been lost in time, as this stole my attention instead and I copied it over to another tape. Since then, it's refused to leave my mind, merely laze there unobtrusively until I look at a piece of art and start to think about what it means, when this wakens from its slumber and refuses to let me be. In many ways, to me it has become the definitive statement about art. It's composed of three sections. Firstly, there's a minute where we see a set of paintings from a technical angle, literally seeing not artistry but construction. Next up are two minutes for us to be transported into a single piece that grabs us for an unknown reason and won't let go, perhaps because it's initially contradictory. Finally there's an eight minute journey in which everything we see and recognise promptly becomes something else. This is where our minds are blown.

The film's credits identify the creators of the original material that Marcussen used here as sources, both the lydfragmenter (sound fragments) and billedfragmenter (image fragments), but not the actual names of the pieces. Unfortunately I don't have enough of a background in art to recognise many of them and a little googling doesn't help too much. Given that the third painting we see at the outset, in an exhibition framework, is Salvador Dali's Enigma of Desire, I can only assume that the two preceding it are by Sam Francis and Balcolm Greene. Certainly the styles fit, Francis being an abstract artist who painted colour explosions and Greene also being abstract but more around abstractions of figures or landscapes. After the Dali, we find The Public Voice by Paul Delvaux, a Belgian painter who built imagery out of consistent, if often contradictory, elements. This piece contains his most recognisable themes: classic architecture, trains or trolleys, plants or trees and, most notably, nude women.
The magnifying glass examining these works of art fails to see anything within The Public Voice, so looks closer and launches us into the picture, literally, through the window of the trolley car in its centre and a succession of architectural landscapes drawn in straight lines. It's reminiscent of the relentless zoom that arrived late in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with the moving psychedelic colours replaced by a static blue on black monochrome, perhaps to reflect the origins of architecture in graph paper and blueprints. Then, three minutes in, we reach an epiphany and escape mere structural analysis. Everything changes at this point: the forward zoom is reversed, the blue and black turn to colour and the straight lines become wild and unpredictable. We're invited, as art should always invite, to both look and see, but while the looking is always easy, the seeing is not. We constantly see things but they constantly become something else, all by the camera pulling back so that we see more, eventually returning to The Public Voice.

Intriguingly at the point from which we start to pull back, we see something similar to the initial painting, but it's a sign not a trolley, the buildings are flats and even the women are cutouts. Only the nude figure in the foreground remains a nude figure, but she's still different and she promptly becomes something else: the hand of the man in Wilhelm Freddie's painting, Sabotage. He in turn becomes a speck in the eye of a weird creature, which becomes a man with a flowing beard, which becomes the shadow under the nose of La Giaconda. And on we go. The Mona Lisa is far from the only famous work of art in this collage, the hellscape from Hieronymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights immediately recognisable, but some only look familiar, such as the Moebius-esque figure sprawled on a landscape, the map of Europe, the wild face flying like a flag (Dali again?). Clearly this is a playful, surrealistic piece but with the added transformative element that a painting never has unless we choose to find out for ourselves.

The music is as fascinating as the visuals, but again only identified by artist rather than track. I can only assume from my limited knowledge of twentieth century experimental music that, while the painters are listed in order of the appearance of their works, the composers or performers are not. The most outré of the pieces comes towards the end but, given that it includes recitations from Samuel Beckett's ironically titled novel, The Unnamable, it's surely from Sinfonia by the experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio, credited first. I presume the zoom change is accompanied by Gravity Waves by the Harmonic Choir and the recurring driving piece is surely the Gustav Mahler, leaving Henry Cow responsible for the rest. Berio in particular is a highly appropriate inclusion to the score as he's a composer who invites exploration on the part of the listener, just like this film. Clearly the underlying message is that art, whatever its form, has hidden depths for us to explore, if we only choose to. This film is a wonderful trigger for exploration.

The Public Voice can be watched for free on YouTube, though I would dearly love to be able to watch this from a high definition source. One online source suggests that a DVD may exist of Marcussen's works and that the Danish Film Institute may be a good point of contact. However, Marcussen himself died last year.

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