[Frameworks] Christmas on Earth: Audio, Randomness, Cinema

From: David Tetzlaff (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Jul 02 2010 - 12:39:24 PDT

Rummaging through the Google, I found this old Frameworks thread that
I somehow missed at the time: an interesting discussion of sound to
accompany screenings of 'Christmas on Earth' in which my name comes
up. This topic is timeless for me, so I'm going to toss in my two
cents, however belatedly.

>>> In April 05, there was a short thread about Barbara Rubin's film
>>> 'Christmas On Earth'. It seems that aside from having the film(s)
>>> double-projected that the projectionist is also given instructions
>>> to have radio playing into the theatre at the same time. I'm
>>> curious about these instructions - to have the film scored to live
>>> radio tuned to a so-called 'rock station'.
>>> Obviously, radio in the mid-sixties and radio today are a
>>> completely different animal. Aside from shifts in musical style,
>>> contemporary radio is owned by a few centralized corporations -
>>> thus predictably managed to the listener's conditioned taste . So,
>>> I would imagine that radio 40 years ago was much more eccentric
>>> and was likely to enhance the tension of the viewing experience,
>>> not knowing what sort of musical accompaniment or commercial was
>>> likely to come next. I gather that Barbara was hoping to create an
>>> experience that garnered a certain spontaneity.
>>> Is there anybody on this list who can share the experience of
>>> seeing 'Christmas On Earth' as per the original exposition
>>> instructions?
>>> Thanks for any insight.
>>> Alva

I agree with Alva that corporate radio and contemporary niche formats
have a level of predictability that is problematic for COE. (Note
Rubin's reference to a 'cross section' below). I _was_ listening to
Top 40 radio in the early 1960s, and I don't know if I would call it
'eccentric', but it was far more eclectic stylistically than
contemporary formats. This did not so much create tension as surprise,
and of course was received differently by different listeners
depending on how eclectic their own tastes were.

Rubin's specific intent is not easy to discern, as she said different
things about COE at different times, and there is at least one other
set of instructions (see below) besides the one on the FMC site now.
However, I think she was pretty consistent amount the general intent
being 'psychic tumult,' and that in that regard the audio should be
loud. (James Kreul makes a similar point below...)

> > The instructions for projection and sound accompaniment are included
> > with the rental from Filmmakers coop. Someone at the coop made a
> tape
> > - which approximates what may have been heard on AM radio in the
> > early 60's - that is included with rentals. The film was made in
> > 1963. Live music was played at least once as accompaniment when the
> > Velvet Underground jammed with the film. Colored gels are included
> > with the film and are to be placed in front of the lenses while
> > projecting. Chance played a large roll in Rubin's aesthetic
> > sensibilities and thus I think one can play any damn thing one wants
> > to along with the film.
> >
> > Owen Plotkin
I agree with Owen that one can and should play any damn thing they
want that meets their interpretation of the 'psychic tumult' spec. The
soundtrack cassette that circulated with the FMC print was made by
Mark Webber as an OPTION for anyone who might feel, like Alva, that
the radio broadcats available to them just don't fit -- and also
because screening rooms where COE might be shown are often inside
buildings that block radio reception.

James Kruel then joined the discussion.

> The film now comes with a CD version of the tape mentioned below.
> (If my
> memory is correct David Tetzlaff assembled it, perhaps someone could
> confirm
> this.) You have a few options with the CDs, including a version that
> combines period songs with period radio commercials. That's the
> option I
> used when I screened it this past Fall, and it worked out well
> (although
> some of the song choices seemed a bit too perfect).
I did indeed, create new soundtracks and put them on CDs. I did this
because, when I had called FMC to rent the print, M.M. told me that
Mark's tape had been lost (and apparently there was no back up). My
original intent was only to provide a replacement for that lost
option, not to create anything definitive. As Owen said, play whatever
works for you.

My idea was to simulate as best I could what one might have heard on
AM radio when the film was screened 'back in the day'. Though it was
shot in 1963, and Rubin screened the unedited camera original for
awhile, the form now specified in the circulating instructions: Reel B
projected inside Reel A, both heads out, apparently did not congeal
until 1966.

My thoughts were 1) at some point in the mid-sixties, the 'psychic
tumult' in pop went from sub-text to text - in the form of
psychedelia, various adventures in lyrics, and what not. 2) The taboo-
denying nature of the work comes out more if the music is not overtly
counter-cultural, if what is visible on-screen is only subtext in the
audio. For example, Mark had used Foxy Lady on his cassette, and i
thought Hendrix' connotations as a taboo breaking sex god were too
music-video obvious. So, I got a list of the top chart hits from
1963-1965, crossed-off the stuff I couldn't find easily, or that I
just didn't want to hear ever again, and also nixed a few that seemed
too over the top in the context of lyrics intended in innocence
juxtaposed against polymorphously perverse images. Then i picked from
the rest more or less at random, and ordered them based on the kind of
variety I imagined a DJ would use to pace a show. I did not refer to
the image track at all.

I wasn't totally satisfied with the result because it was just music.
It didn't sound like radio because there were no ads, promos, deejay
patter. Again, I was not so much trying for realism, but for the
'feel' of tumult. It struck me that listening to top 40 radio WAS more
tumultuous than listening to any sequence of songs by themselves due
to the loudness and speed of the ads and promos, and the quick
juxtapositions between them. And I recalled how the commercial radio
context is evoked on 'The Who Sell Out' and how listening to that
album is different than hearing the same songs in the conventional
context. So I bought two CDs from the _Crusin'_ series, which present
representative hits of each year with DJ patter included. I got the
volumes from 1963 and 1964. Since the DJs sometimes talked over the
beginning and ending of songs, this limited my choices somewhat, and
again, I thought I should structure the placing of the DJ bits in a
manner that fit the pattern of the broadcast form as I remembered it,
which also affected the placing of the songs. The resulting edit,
while not random in and of itself, has almost nothing to do with COE,
and if the choices seem 'too perfect' it's accidental. At no point did
I pick something because I thought, "oh that would go so great with
footage of Rubin moving the camera between her legs!" or anything like
that. Except for those few way-too-much numbers (and I don't remember
what they were) I didn't reject anything that came out of the process
as described because it gained new subtext or became funny in relation
to COE either. I'd guess screenings using live radio feeds probably
have moments of 'too perfect' ness, as well.

I did think though, that these accidental juxtapositions would be
counter-productive to the way some people interpret COE. It's a very
open text, so if folks want to take it more seriously, that's valid.
The inadvertent comedy of word-image juxtapositions might deflate the
particular sort of 'psychic tumult' that some programmers seek to
offer their audiences. That's why I made a second track, consisting
only of instrumental rock hits from the period. The more options the
better, I figure.

I had stuck a card explaining some of this into the CD when i sent the
print back to FMC. I have no idea if the card or the CD are still with
the print. If anyone wants copies of the tracks I made for any reason,
just email me and I'll get you an .mp3.
> (Now that I've seen it once with the CD, I don't want to fix the
> experience to that one set of songs and ads.)
Wouldn't the question be what works best for the audience seeing the
piece for the first time? (Though again there's no one right answer.)

> The instructions are included in the film description in the Co-op
> Catalogue "...a radio must be hooked up to your P.A. System with a
> nice cross-section of psychic tumult, like an AM rock station turned
> on and played loud." The emphasis probably should be on "psychic
> tumult" and "played loud" rather than on "like an AM rock station."
Regarding the 'cross section'... if you have any reception at all in
the projection room, one approach might be to get a radio with
programmable station select buttons, set them to an appropriate mix of
different format stations, and let audience members change the channel
when the whim moves them. I always incorporated participation when
screening COE in class, having the students take turns putting the
gels in front of the lens, and (subtly) encouraging them to play with
different manipulations of the gels.

> It all depends on how you interpret the intent of the instructions
> in the first place. If you think the intent was to hear a particular
> kind of music and radio programming circa 1963, then the CDs are a
> good option. If you think the intent had more to do with generating
> an uncontrolled soundtrack that will be different each time you see
> the film (just as the color filters that you place in front of the
> lenses will transform the experience each
> time), then the radio option is the way to go. You could also
> interpret the instructions as a call to incorporate whatever was
> popular on the radio at the time (rather than "oldies") into the
> experience of the film, which would
> suggest the parallel experience now would be to tune into a
> contemporary rock station. (Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than
> me could say what the connotations of an AM rock station would have
> been in 1963--a pop rock
> station?)
Rubin's intent being elusive, I'd reframe the question as depending on
how the programmer interprets the work (rather than the instructions),
and the purpose in programming it. It seems James, Owen, Alva and I
all have similar interpretations. I'd frame my goal as offering
something that seems uncontrolled and spontaneous to the audience, and
I think the djmix CD track can do that as well as a current radio
feed. It all depends on how it's framed. In either event, one might
introduce the film with a mention of Rubin's request for a randomness
within the larger tumultuous field and note that what the audience
will hear on that day was taken / is being taken in that spirit and is
not THE soundtrack.
> I don't think you need to worry too much about the structure of
> current corporate radio, because the film ends up bringing out the
> subtext to most of the mundane ads that dominate oldies stations.
> Sure, it's different than what you would have heard in 1963, but it
> raises awareness of things we've probably tuned out of our
> contemporary experience.
It really depends on what kind of stations are available in each
physical location. It's an excellent point that some contemporary
broadcasts and COE will recontextualize each other in productive new
ways. Writing about COE, W.W. Dixon references another (earlier?) set
of instructions in which Rubin indicates it doesn't matter which reel
is inner or outer, and that either real may be shown heads first or
tails first. He then says: "The overt randomness of this projection
scheme epitomizes the relaxed, free-form participatory nature of film
performance/presentation in the 1960; Rubin here is quite willing to
embrace the (unknown) projectionist as a fellow collaborator in the
final public presentation of her work. Concomitantly, each projection
of Christmas on Earth is thus unique and irreproducible." I'd
interpret this embrace of unknown collaborators as extending through
time, to include all sorts of uses of the work in screening series
exploring queer themes, feminist themes, eroticism, porn, kitsch...
whatever. Even separate screenings using the same fixed soundtrack,
and without the performance element of gels, will be unique because
the size, brightness and position relationships of the two frames will
never be the same, nor will the timing of the changes in juxtaposition
between the two reels.

In this context it's useful, I think, to reflect on the ways in which
we experience any cinematic art are never truly fixed. Screens are
different sizes. Seats are more or less comfortable, and positioned
differently to the screen. Different rooms have different degrees of
light and sound distractions. Different audiences create different
vibes. The condition of the print can vary a lot, as can the quality
and condition of the projection and PA. Sometimes you hear the
projector itself, sometimes not. It seems to me that most of us, as
makers and viewers, have a kind of platonic ideal film inside our
mind, and a desire to have screenings conform to that ideal. Certainly
one encounters enough polemics to that effect. IMHO, most if not all
of these arguments suffer from reducing a complex field of variables
to one or two factors that are inappropriately essentialized. Thinking
about Rubin reminds us that no matter how fixed we imagine a film text
to be, the experience of actual watching, and thus of aesthetic
effect, is amazingly fluid and context dependent. Perhaps it takes a
kook/visionary like Rubin to embrace that indeterminacy.

I'm struck by the apparent contradiction between the instructions
Dixon quotes, and the command from Rubin that now appears on the FMC
--B.R." I wonder what accounts for the apparent change in attitude, or
whether this P.S. is some kind of Duchampian joke. The note from Rubin
begins, "What you will be renting now is just what was filmed, uncut,
unedited." Yet Rubin was 'famously' quoted describing a Cage-ian
method of random assembly:

> so i spent 3 months chopping the hours of film up into a basket and
> then toss and toss flip and toss and one by one Absently enchantedly
> Destined to splice it together and separate on to two different
> reels...then i showed it and someone tells me, ‘my what a good
> editing job that is indeed!’.

Daniel Belasco notes,

> "Christmas on Earth’s randomness and pleasure is not as jarring as
> you would expect from [this] description, however. She must have
> snipped the original film at fairly long intervals because sequences
> progress without being cut off abruptly. Nevertheless, Rubin’s own
> flippancy was part of the esthetic strategy of this film. [Rosebud]
> Pettet recalled, “sometimes Barbara referred to it as a fucking joke.”
And sometimes not.

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