Saturday, 10 July 2010


The video embedded in this probably quite laborious post comes from the original soundtrack for the 1984 film Decoder, a low budget cult affair featuring cameo appearances by the late William S. Burroughs and musician/transgenderist Genesis P. Orridge. The film is beautiful in a raw, industrio-psychedelic fashion. Both of the big cameos give pretty weird, awkward performances but it's worth watching all the same... like a decent Ballardian B-movie. It's apparently based around or 'inspired by' Burroughs's ideas about sonic virology, a concept first outlined in his seminal publication on the subversive potentialities of sound and technology, Electronic Revolution (1970). The book contains (amongst other things) ideas about the 'language virus' itself, Burroughs's cut-up method and the use of sound recording and the human voice as weapons. Richard Kirk from industrial avant-garde band Cabaret Voltaire sights Electronic Revolution as "a handbook of how to use tape recorders in a crowd … to promote a sense of unease or unrest by playback of riot noises cut in with random recordings of the crowd itself."

Steve Goodman is variously known as Professor of Musicology at The University of East London, label boss of underground U.K dance music giant Hyperdub, acclaimed electronic music producer Kode9 and as the author of  a fascinating philosophical treatise entitled Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2009). As Goodman terms it; we are today dealing with the dynamics and application of 'affective tonalities in the Industrial-Entertainment Complex' and 'the politics of frequency itself'. These are the kinds of ideas that Decoder sets against a backdrop of hyper-capitalist industry, impending spiritual apocalypse and ineffable individual isolation. I liked the film; the textures it deliverd, the mood it created, its lack of compromise and it's luscious low-fi, made-in-a-blacked-out-garage feel. As a student of the more subversive arts however, it disappointed me in a couple of quite important ways. Firstly, I fell asleep at least once. While this may well be 100% my fault and is certainly 100% my problem, it wasn't just my lack of zest that set me to dozing I don't think. The pretentiousness of the narrative sincerity became quite boring after a while, especially as most of the acting was so dismally guarded. The reliance on narrative in and of itself betrays a lack of conviction in the ideas that the narrative here pursues, specifically Burroughs's ideas about cut-up techniques and true deconstruction/reconstruction - to coin a phrase from Doctor T. Leary, 'pyschic imprinting' - which seem better suited to writing, musical production and more formally experimental forms of the still and moving image than to narrative cinema per se. Decoder did make me feel uneasy ; it succeeded in temporarily breaking down some of my preconditioned responses to social taboos, as well as those of my own subjectivity... but I wasn't in a crowd, and I never felt quite uneasy enough. What I think I'm trying to suggest is that the narrative form itself acted as something of a buffer against existential experience proper, keeping psychic activity just beyond arm's reach.

The editing, brutalist aesthetics and hyper-diegetic sound design were all pretty abrasive, satisfying some of the lust for sensory overload the viewer may or may not have been predisposed to. There is a prolonged  Dreammachine sequence for example; a self-hypnosis tool propounded by many a transcendentalist artist, including not insignificantly Burrough's long term partner in crime Brion Gysin, as well as by Genesis P. Orridge and the cohorts of Throbbing Gristle in the U.K in the 1970s and 80s.

The soundtrack is possibly the strongest thing about Decoder, although there are definitely some really "cool" scenes in the film. About twenty minutes in for instance, once the angst and isolation of the weirdo-protagonist have been fertilized and the fruits of rebellion begun to blossom. A mesmerizingly pretentious scene takes place wherein the junky-chic, deadpan beauty, peep show starlet girlfriend of the male lead delivers a soliloquy about the symbolic significance of the frog in the spiritual languages of the ancient world. 

"I read that they're a symbol of fertility or the amniotic fluid. For the Mayans they symbolized the vagina: Mucho."

He yawns. 

Cutting between the two faces, we see the pair each on the phone, one in blue light, one in green. 

"Got a light?" he says. 

A cigarette lighter enters from left of screen and a two-shot reveals the couple in their shared apartment room, situated like pop videos in poised pose. They've both got dark glasses on and there are frogs lolling around all over the floor, the silver futon, and the girl...

Despite my fairly directionless criticisms, it's not hard to imagine some-where, some-time, some suitably weird scenes in and outside of cinema screenings of this film. Ultimately though I'm left wanting to compare Decoder unfavourably to David Cronenberg's superb 1991 adaptation of Burroughs's famous novel Naked Lunch. The key differential is that where Decoder attempts to insert theories of Ontological Anarchy and Poetic Terrorism into a risque, cool, dirty movie, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch instead takes the 'Art' of Burroughs and emblazons it in masterfully onto controlled celluloid. Maybe that's an unfair comparison, like pitting a spirited bare-knuckle gypsy against a zen master in a game of chess boxing, but as Oscar Wilde spake through the mouth of Lord Henry, "comparisons are odious".

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