Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stop Making Sense

Last night some friend hosted a screening of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. I was blown away. It's a great film. Taut, exciting. I'd never seen it before. And, I think until last night, I'd never got the brilliance of Talking Heads. I liked some of their stuff, but I really didn't connect with it on a deep enough level to go out and buy it or go deeply into it. After seeing this film, I feel like I not only get Talking Heads, but get what's compelling about David Byrne aside from his quirkiness (which I'd missed), and finally, if you can believe it, post-modernism.

I should probably explain that last one. I've spent a fair amount of time in performance theory classes, semiotics seminars, and seeing a lot of non-mainstream performance. Post-modernism is one of those terms that's bandied about, but just seems to be this big umbrella encompassing anything that happened after, say, 1975. I never was clear on what it meant, but I felt it really coalesced sometime in the mid-early 80's, and people like Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group were at it's center. The thing I always took away was the idea of fragmentation. But for some reason, even after seeing show after show in living rooms, stores, theaters, garages, parks and subway stations, I never really felt it. Until this film. And what I got was actually kind of simple, so I'm probably overdoing it here, but it was such an "AHA!" moment, and when we have felt moments like that they seem kind of large. Can you tell that I'm procrastinating writing this, because I think you're going to read it and say, "Well, duh."?

There is a song, and I'm not sure which one, where there is a screen at the back of the stage that is divided into three sections, each displaying a unrelated different word, e.g. onion, sand, ground. This happens a few times--they flash every 15 seconds or so, maybe less. Then the screen changes to blue and the the screens are three words that make up a familiar phrase--the one I'm remembering is Look At Me. And then the nickel dropped, and the record played. Oh! I get it! All this stuff that I've studied and worked with made, for want of a better word, emotional sense for the first time. Words, or phrases, or whatever, are made strange in their regular context by the knowledge of what they are singularly. They're made foreign or strange, sometimes by their context, and sometimes in their context by what they are place against. So having random, unrelated words in groups of three flashed over and over makes the relation of the three were used to seeing, "look at me" in this example" strange. You think, Why are these particular words together? What is their meaning? Do they have meaning alone? Do they have meaning beyond what I take for granted, in fact, have I been missing the meaning altogether?

Well, duh. You'd think having seen this technique so much I might have felt it at least once. But I never did. At least not that i remember. So I'm writing it down lest I forget again.

And songs like "Once in a Lifetime", which was ubiquitous growing up so I didn't really think much about the meaning, take on whole new meanings. The song is about waking up and not recognizing your life, and possibly the chance that chasm offers. The whole film is brilliant in this, or actually the show--building the band one piece at a time, having a travelling light on the stage, people running in place, Byrne's oversize suit--everything pulls us away and and asks us to rethink what we take for granted in perception. The title itself, if an imperative, is an exhortation to this: Stop Making Sense!

I loved it. And unlike dada, which I should probably look at more but seems to me the art equivalent of typing monkeys, this actually looks to find more meaning by pulling things apart. I kind of see dada as just saying "it's all gibberish, so let's just be silly" whereas this deconstruction is saying "maybe we can pull apart our expectations and find something rich and rewarding".
And I kind of love David Byrne now, and before he almost actively annoyed me. So that's a win.

Aretha is singing "Ain't no Way" in the Starbucks here, so I've lost all train of thought and can only sit here and listen.

1 comment:

Man. Hat. In. said...

LOve the band, love the movie. Saw it when it came out and was blown away too. And I didn't even know until then that the Tom Tom Club was who they were.