Video Jam @ Lady Chapel, Liverpool, 5 Oct
Video Jam and Abandon Normal Devices pay tribute to actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr with a night of short films and live music
Tonight, in Liverpool’s Lady Chapel, an intimate annexe to the cavernous Liverpool Cathedral, Abandon Normal Devices (AND) and Video Jam celebrate what would have been the centenary of Golden Age actress Hedy Lamarr. But it isn’t her film career – which includes starring roles alongside Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart – that’s spurred AND to invite Video Jam to programme a night of film and music in the Austro-American’s honour. It’s her little-acknowledged contribution to science.
You see, Lamarr was a bit of a maths-whizz. In between starring in films like Ziegfeld Girl and Samson and Delilah, she used her skill for numbers to invent a form of ‘radio frequency hopping’ intended to be used on US Navy torpedo guidance systems during the second world war. The technology was overlooked at the time but eventually adopted by the US during the Cuban missile crisis to transmit coded radio signals, and forms the basis for many modern spread-spectrum communication technologies, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks. To put it in a more modern context, it’s a bit like finding out Cameron Diaz invented Twitter or a doodle Keanu Reeves sketched on a napkin in 1992 became the blueprint for the Large Hadron Collider.
The meat of tonight’s event is Jacques Tourneur’s rarely screened psychological drama Experiment Perilous. In it, Lamarr plays the trophy wife of a wealthy philanthropist who had the kind of Freudian-nightmare childhood that most noir antagonists seem to have suffered through. Being that it’s directed by Tourneur (Cat People, Night of the Demon), Experiment Perilous is a film of atmosphere, with a creepy to-die-for opening on board a steaming locomotive. Lamarr, whose character has men falling at her feet throughout the film, lives up to her billing in AND festival manager Gabrielle Jenks’ intro as "the most beautiful woman to appear on the silver screen." The movie would make a fine opening to a triple-bill with George Cukor’s Gaslight and Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the two other great 40s melodramas about a husband trying to send his better half round the bend.
Satelliting this main feature, Video Jam present a quartet of shorts with local bands providing the soundtracks. First up is Canadian filmmaker Kara Blake’s Timbre, an abstract work following four women as they make their way through various urban and rural environments. With this woozy kaleidoscope of lush colour shot on 16mm film, Blake is attempting to evoke the psychological phenomenon known as synaesthesia, a condition whereby two or more human senses are involuntarily connected. Given Video Jam’s dedication to fusing existing works of moving images with new sounds, it’s easy to see why they were drawn to Blake’s work. Liverpool-based composer and performer Jonathan Hering provides the bespoke soundtrack, a melodic keyboard composition as sensuous and dreamy as Blake’s images.
Things get a bit heavier in the second half of the programme, with three live performances. The highlight of the night is Ex-Easter Island Head, the Liverpool-based collective with a very peculiar shtick: they create their music by hitting fingers, hands, drumsticks, mallets, etc. against electric guitars strapped horizontally to Black & Decker workbenches. Tonight they perform as a duo, and are paired with the most well-known film of the evening, a 13-minute segment from Ron Fricke’s 1993 eco-doc Baraka, which juxtaposes the wonder of nature with the insanity of humankind’s technological progress. The best thing about Fricke’s film is its awe-inspiring imagery; the worst is its banal, pan pipe-laden score. Ex-Easter Island Head’s rhythmic accompaniment, by contrast, is intense and incessant. A full rescore by the Ex-Easter Island Head boys might push Fricke’s film into the masterpiece category.
The Time That Remains, from two-person art collective Soda Jerk, brings us back to the era of Experiment Perilous and Hedy Lamarr with a curious and haunting manipulation of the movies of two of Hollywood’s most iconic stars: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Soda Jerk describe their pictures as ‘séance fiction’, and watching a few minutes of The Time That Remains makes clear what they mean. A middle-aged Davis is asleep in her boudoir when she’s woken by a thunderstorm. Startled, she runs to the landing where she encounters a version of herself decades younger. By splicing these actors’ respective oeuvres together, celluloid ghosts from the past and future are created, turning these acting roles into a series of haunting doppelgängers. The Time That Remains is paired with Horrid, a trio of psychedelic noise-makers who wear soiled potato sacks on their heads. I’d tell you more about Horrid, but whoever assembled the beautifully designed programme handed out at the start of the night inexplicably inserted a synopsis for Jim Carrey slapstick-vehicle The Mask in place of Horrid’s band bio. What I do know is that their Goblin-esque rock score proves the perfect accompaniment to Soda Jerk’s ghoulish art-cum-horror film.
The night rounds off in fine style with the soaring vocals of Anna-Louisa Etherington and her synth-pop band Letters To Fiesta, who accompany the Internet is handmade, an experimental short by identical twins Amy and Hannah Buckley. Inspired by negotiating the act of living on two different continents while at the same time trying to collaborate on art projects, the film, by no small coincidence, incorporates most of the themes explored in tonight's event (doubles, time, technology) and AND’s wider programme as a whole, from Mark Boulos’s uncanny conjuring trick of an art installation Echo to Jesse Darling’s weekend-long workshop on the duality between our online personas and our true identities, Our Bodies Our Selfies. In other words, this is a night of seamless programming.