Bringing Classic Cinema to Life [by James Wenley]
Dementia 13 is a 1963 thriller and old-school slasher flick where an axe-wielding madman stalks the grounds of a Scottish castle. Though a clear Psycho-lite, in this early Francis Ford Coppola picture it is possible to discern his latent potential, in amongst the hokey psychological posturing and a reveal telegraphed from miles away.
Carnival of Souls is a dreamy 1962 B-movie horror in which a female organist moves town after a car accident where she is followed by a creepy man with dark shadows under his eyes. The film-making is beautiful, the storyline and performances are bizarre if oddly gripping, and the ending sublime.
Both films open with a watery accident – a heart attack on a row boat, a car plunging into a river – and have a number of (sometimes hackneyed) twists to propel them along. These black and white films are of passing interest to film fanatics as stabs in the genre, time capsules of their period, and for the ironic amusement in viewing them today.
But under the creative lunacy of creator and composer Leon Radojkovic and Director Oliver Driver, with 7 musicians, 4 actors, and an insanely hard-working Foley artist, these films are elevated to both the cinematic and sensory level. Removing the soundtrack from the pictures, the team recreate it afresh each night (including magnificent original scores by Radojkovic). It’s as if cinema has been processed as theatre – where you can only appreciate it if you are there breathing the same air as the performers – and then fed back larger than life on the cinema screen.
Live Live Cinema debuted with Carnival of Souls at the 2011 Auckland Festival and subsequently toured the production to a number of destinations. For their follow-up, the team watched countless films – needing period films of a manageable running time, a range musical possibilities, and theatrical possibilities – before finding Dementia 13. Both Dementia 13 and Carnival of Souls have been running at the Herald Theatre this past week in anticipation of a London double bill at the Barbican Theatre on October 20th.
Here the Herald Theatre stage, completely stripped back, is far more practical than pretty, barely fitting the instruments, music stands, microphones, assorted leads, actor’s armchairs, and a whole Foley room onto the stage. Both shows begin similarly with the performers arriving and engaging in small talk. My colleague at Dementia 13 notes the watermelon to the side of stage and exclaims “This is going to be awesome”. Then once we are all in, its straight to the business – lights dim, and Cameron Rhodes announces the opening titles as it appears on the overhead screen. There is little difference in the form of both show screenings, just the content – the team have honed a compelling formula.
Less jobbing actors, as in Live Live Cinema’s first iteration, and more consummate performers, actors and musos are dressed to the nines for the evening. Charlie McDermott, Bronwyn Bradley and Cameron Rhodes approach the microphones with well-thumbed scripts in hand. McDermott gives us bravura wooden acting in 13, and a creepy neighbor in Souls. Rhodes and Bradley are the character actors ably enlivening a wide variety of roles.
Script-free Sutherland however never breaks character, suggesting an eerie connection between herself and her blonde protagonists that reaches beyond the screen – the leading lady of Souls, and two blondes in 13 – one a naïve fiancé, the other a femme fatale. With her affected wide eyes and haunted expression, the effect is as if she has been momentarily taken over by the ghosts of the old films.
It is an odd adjustment to make as a viewer in processing Live Live Cinema; whereas film as medium guides our gaze, here there is a surplus of potential subject points. Certainly the actors centre-stage are a notable feature, and my immediate focus was darting back and forth between the strange disconnect between the screen and performers.
Leon’s magnificent performed score also catches your attention early, and it is a distinct pleasure in both evenings being able to feel the music (especially when seated in the front row side in Carnival of Souls). The music is a perfect complement to the image, and Leon as conductor is also a fascinating watch, one eye on the screen, as he lowers and raises his hands in anticipation of the screen moment. The shock of sudden blasts of music gets our hearts racing.
Such is the accepted normality of the diagetic film soundtrack that in Dementia 13 I didn’t initially register the input of Foley wizard Gareth Van Niekerk. But sure enough, that water lapping the boat was Van Niekerk with his hand in a bowl of water. I’m continually impressed with how he creates the the myriad of sound cues at exactly the right time.
This all sets up the artificiality of the movie medium, but after this first defamiliarisation, these elements instead increase the picture’s immediacy. I find myself caught up in the moment, in the drama and terror, and these old films become a bone fide thrill-ride. The flipside is that sometimes through the live performers we can anticipate what is about to happen – an actor approaching their microphone, Van Niekerk preparing an object, or an instrument at the ready.
There are corny moments for sure, and poor on-screen acting, but for the most part the live performers take it deadly seriously. In Dementia 13 there is some sly commentary on the film-making when Rhodes questions how long a particular character is taking to meet their demise (a scene Coppola added to placate the producers and increase the running time), and Leon and the musicians improvise through it. But otherwise they wisely choose not to succumb to the potential for parody, but instead emphasise the power of these films to intrigue and terrify.
An incredible and engrossing way to experience cinema, I’d gladly watch more classic (or even recent) cinematic spectacles from the Live Live Cinema team.
Live Live Cinema is presented by Jumpboard Productions and The EDGE and played at The Herald Theatre 9-13 October.