Disgusted by the cynically gilded cultural possibilities of today, but just can’t find the exit sign? How about a rhythmic sight and sound trip back to rocking 1974?
Not a commercial for PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel’s antiaging research foundation, the previous lines should appear at the entrance to artist Stan Douglas’s latest breakthrough film, currently on view at the David Zwirner gallery on West 19th Street. An invitation to tune into history in the guise of a mind-blowing jam session, the text should also serve as a warning. Since there’s zero information to let viewers know that the movie runs a looping six hours, more than a few folks will otherwise find themselves blissed out inside the gallery when the lights pop up at closing time.
Douglas’s most recent foray into moving images — video and film have been the mainstays of his celebrated three-decade-old career — is totally far out, to use period-appropriate lingo. But this is hardly its chief reward. A heavyweight intellectual presence amid a new year’s raft of largely bantamweight Chelsea shows, the Vancouver native’s latest effort delivers a KO to the mannered fare featured in many galleries. Even with multiple references made to that musical snob Theodor Adorno, who is voiced repeatedly during the exhibition preview, the artist’s richly textured tunes and visuals are still a cinch for winningest art among the neighborhood’s coulda-been contenders.
Named Luanda-Kinshasa, with a nod to two important world historical events that took place in 1974 — the liberation of Angola’s capital and the Ali vs. Frazier “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire — the movie’s title jimmies the theatrical reenactment door that Douglas’s footage later blows wide open. In a nutshell, the film documents a storied recording session by a nameless, wordless, fictional funk-jazz band. A stylish synthesis of period details and grooves that recall other time-based developments — among them, Charlie’s Angels flares, Nixon resigning after Watergate, and the monster bass line on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” — Douglas’s swooping lens swirls music, images, and memory together like tea and madeleines. The results are a genre-busting George Clinton–inspired Remembrance of Things Past. Hollywood has its overripe, sternum-revealing version of Abscam in American Hustle. This is art’s official paean to the 1970s. Call it Proust, the Rockumentary.
Filmed on location in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Luanda–Kinshasa was shot entirely within Douglas’s meticulous recreation of “The Church,” a Columbia Records studio once located inside a disused house of worship in midtown on East 30th Street. Popular with musicians working across all genres from 1949 until it was shuttered in 1981, the studio was ground zero for an astonishing number of groundbreaking recordings. Among these were Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and Glenn Gould’s Bach: The Goldberg Variations. In due time, “The Church” fell to the wrecking ball and Gotham’s love of $6,000-a-month luxury rentals (surprise!). Like the original Penn Station and Max’s Kansas City, it proved yet another casualty of short-term greed and faulty cultural memory.
These are the facts that anchor the Canadian artist’s conceptually dense but visually straightforward art-movie production. Cast, costumed, recorded, and shot with a naturalism that belies their pseudo-reality, Douglas’s musicians grow giant in stature with every head bob, drum roll, and guitar solo. Surrounded by mock techies, counterfeit journalists, faux girlfriends, and fake record-label suits, the film’s three guitarists, four percussionists, two keyboard players, and single clarinetist embody their period roles with astounding fidelity. In the 1970s, such meetings shattered glass — at least on TV commercials. The question was then: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” For Douglas, the issue is different. It’s not so much whether reality can be distinguished from its copy. What he ultimately wants to know is: Can today’s copy become a useful metaphor for reality?
According to Douglas, part of the inspiration for Luanda–Kinshasa is French economist Jacques Attali’s idea that “musical formations can be prescient or anticipatory of social formations.” A theoretical mouthful, what the Frenchman means to suggest is that music’s basic structure, in a Marxian reading, doesn’t just reflect a social and political order, but may also forecast certain historical periods. A case in point would be Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 movie-length film of the Rolling Stones recording “Sympathy for the Devil.” A music video avant la lettre, Godard’s revolutionary film combined footage of Mick, Keef, and the boys recording their sinister masterpiece with images of randy hippies, Black Panthers, and weirdo Maoists. A funhouse mirror held up to the utopian madness of the 1960s, Godard’s film was a bust back in the day. Today, there’s no denying that both the song and the movie were hugely ahead of their time in just about every imaginable way.
Douglas is forthright about having copied “the look” of One Plus One (Godard’s title for his Stones film) for Luanda–Kinshasa: the way “the camera moves in the space, the dress, the color palette.” His purpose, he has said — echoing art historian Robert Slifkin’s recent approach to reading paintings as objects fully participating in their time — was to arrive at “a palimpsest event” for the period he chose to portray. What he has also done, though, is craft meaty idea art that is fundamentally accessible. An entertainment that is also a powerful crystallization of a moment when the world seemed poised to crack open, Douglas’s movie of a band that never existed playing tunes from another era will make even the most smug viewers wonder what they missed. There’s an awful lot to consider: the opportunities lost, the legends buried, the roads glimpsed but not taken.