(Outside in the city, at night, briefly. Opening credits begin. Extended tracking shot. A man marches purposefully into the San Francisco Police Department. I follow the back of his suited form. A disinterested Police Officer leaning against a column directs him down a second long corridor. At 1 minute and 40 seconds, the music (evocative of striding) fades. Our Sympathetic Everyman (whom I’ve been tailing with the camera) reaches his destination, 44 Homicide Division, and enters.)
Can I help you?
I’d like to see the man in charge.
He’s in here.
(Shown into an office. Note: the standard fan atop a filing cabinet and a small desk lamp casting strong shadows. Decipher: I am in film noir territory, the land of the gumshoe private investigator who is always two steps ahead of the cops.)
I want to report a murder.
(Slumps into chair.)
Where was this murder committed?
San Francisco, last night.
Who was murdered?
(Close up. I see our Everyman’s face for the first time. Loose necktie. Five o’clock shadow. Crumpled appearance.)
Well… do you want to hear me out or don’t you, Captain? I don’t have very much time.
Your name Bigelow, Frank Bigelow?
(Long eye blink.)
I am at the North Melbourne Town Hall on a Sunday evening. The drama is unfolding behind me on a projection screen and in front of me on a stage.
I am simultaneously inside Rudolph Maté’s third motion picture, D.O.A. (1950), and at the world premiere of Lucy Guerin’s new work, “Motion Picture” (as part of Dance Massive 2015). I am a citizen of film noir, at ease in the dark urban setting of light and shadow, tight frames, and flashback sequences. I am in a unique space: ‘listening’ to a film being ‘drawn’ by six dancers on the stage.
Do you read films? Do you watch films?
Do you read dance? Do you watch dance?
Is there a difference to reading and watching?
And, in this work by Guerin, in which I see the film through the dancers’ own interpretations of the film they are watching—can I trust their reading/translation of the drama as it unfolds or will they double-cross me?
From the outset, an elaborate dance of blurred edges sweeps me along thanks to the performances of Alisdair Macindoe as Frank Bigelow (played in the film by Edmond O'Brien) and Stephanie Lake (chiefly) as Paula Gibson (played in the film by Pamela Britton). Briarna Longville, Jessie Oshodi, Kyle Page, and Lilian Steiner complete the visual-aural duality of the vice-ridden metropolis, in this work every bit as seductive as cinema and homage to the art form’s comforting embrace.
As sound passes through me, why, I am likely to break out into hard-boiled dialogue at any moment. I complete the work, much like the constant and present hum of the city. I am creating a new reality (and bemoaning the absence of my own fine tailoring. Maria Donovan, costumes, D.O.A., or Robert Cousins, costume designer, “Motion Picture”—can you help me?).
Kitty: Paula, why don’t you come down to the place and let me give you another permanent? Makes your hair so much easier to manage in all this heat.
Paula: I can’t afford it right now, maybe next month.
Kitty: Why don’t you come down anyway, Paula. We’ll, err, work out a deal on that permanent.
Paula: Thanks, maybe I will.
The sing-song musicality in the dialogue is reflected in the dance before me. The word “permanent” is broken down into a series of steps and pronounced slowly as “per-maan-ent,” rising at the drawn-out middle. At other times the dancers respond not just to the characters in the film and their tone, but to the camera angles, focus, quick edits, and mounting tension. From running on the spot without covering any ground to flipping quickly from left to right facing as they follow the camera’s cue, this dance is all about hitting the right notes. Lip-synching their lines, some great comic moments result in the extended flashback sequence as Frank/Macindoe/O'Brien, looking to inject his ordinary life with a little morally questionable ’50s bachelor playtime in San Francisco, attempts to placate Paula/ Lake/Britton.
Frank: Paula… Paula… please, Paula. Come on. Turn around.
(Spins her around until they are face-to-face.)
(He tries to kiss her on the left check; she tilts her head right.)
(He tries to kiss her right check; she turns left.)
Come ’ere. (Seduction near complete.)
Paula (Pleadingly): Why do you do this to me, Frank? Why can’t you be honest with me… as honest as I am with you? (Cue strings) Do you have to go?
Frank: I have to go, Paula. I know what I’m doin’.
Paula: All right go, go anywhere you like, you can go to blazes for all I care.
(She spins away from him.)
(He spins her back towards him.)
(This is a dance.)
Frank: Paula… (Firm reprimand). Paula… (Soft coo).
(Paula sighs. Shrugs shoulders. Melts.)
Paula: Yes, I know I’m being foolish. (Dabs at tears in left eye with her handkerchief.)
Frank: Come here. (Takes handkerchief, wipes under her eye. Then wipes away tears under her right eye. Tenderly kisses her right temple.) Come on. Fix your face. We’ll go down to Eddie’s and have a drink.
Paula: All right. Why not.
(They kiss; cut to Eddies.)
The dancers with their eyes glued to the screen projected before them but behind the audience calls to mind our current (small device) screen fascination, but to me, the strongest link between the two forms, film and dance, is the Kafka-esque nihilistic shoulder-shrug message of, Nah, but what’s the point, it’s all going to end in nothingness, ain’t it? Frank, poisoned by a luminous toxic matter that attacks the vital organs**, is our Dead Man Walking. Quintessential existentialist brooding noir! There can be only one end. In the film and dance and the new work they make together with the audience, this is about watching his physical deterioration and the disintegration of his moral fibre.
This existential despair is mirrored by the role the audience is asked to play in “Motion Picture.” No matter how hard we might try, without film’s seductive prowess on our side, we cannot attract the dancers’ attention. Their eyes are glued to the screen, even when they are playing the part of Frank and Paula in the aforementioned tight embrace. They contort their lips to kiss, whilst keeping unbroken focus on their celluloid selves. We may be denied connection with the dancers through their direct line of vision, but we are still very much connected to them and we see and read in their movements what they are thinking.
As Macindoe assumes the role of a gumshoe attempting to solve his own murder and the poison takes hold, the relentless gunshot action of the film, it transpires, is perfectly suited to dance. Dimitri Tiomkin’s heavy-handed score, even for the genre, seems to work better now that it is part of Guerin’s world. Slowly, a delicious fragmentation is occurring on the stage as dancers leap in and out of frame. In the push-pull duet between Macindoe and the man who hopes to kill him, Chester, danced by Page (played to the shifty-eyed hilt in the film by Neville Brand), they take turns in testing each others’ weight. There is a sense of vulnerability and imminent danger in the choreography alone that is embellished by the menacing words we hear: “I’m going to enjoy this, Bigelow. I done jobs like this before. I knocked off guys I could like. But I don’t like you, Bigelow…. You’ll be scared, good and scared. Think I’ll give it to you in the belly. You don’t like it in the belly?”
As a budding cinephile and balletomane/dance fanatic, throughout the work, I cannot resist turning my head and looking over my shoulder at the screen before reverting back to the dancers. Sometimes this is out of a film buff’s curiosity seeking to assign a face to a voice, and sometimes to double-check the dancers are not lacing my drink. Sometimes this act feels disloyal to the dancers. But as the tie between film and dance continues to disintegrate, I steal a peep less. As all the dancers take turns in playing Frank and Paula, sometimes appearing as understudies and at other times as splintered versions that together make one, Guerin’s choice of a film, which follows a familiar narrative arc (think: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and ’56) et. al.), ensures that there is never any real confusion in the plot.
Though it occurs early in piece, a favourite scene in the film, but tonight in the dance, occurs at the Fisherman Club. Cries one dancer: “Blow up a storm, Fisherman” in the fast-cut jive euphoria of saxophone, trumpet, piano, and double-bass. In the frenzy, the dancers embody the refrain: “She’s jive crazy” as they go “outta their minds.” They convulse with such abandon as to make me envious. “That’s really silk, isn’t it?” Yes.
For 83-minutes of black and white abstracted image transfer, I have been fully enclosed in Guerin’s razor sharp sensorial space, so all encompassing and affective. As Bigelow threatens Marla Rakubian at the 50-minute mark, “You’re in this right up to your pretty little neck,” wrapped in celluloid. (Bliss!)
*All dialogue quoted throughout personally transcribed from the film D.O.A. (1950).
**Closing credits of the film: “The medical facts in this motion picture are authentic. Luminous toxin is a descriptive term for an actual poison.” —Technical Adviser, Edward F. Dunne, M.D.