Karaoke offers us the haunted vessel of the known song within which to pour our yearning voices, decanting our vocal prosecco into the expectant (empty) bottle of Dom. Thus, karaoke is always a ghostly duet with the original: just as Celine can reach across the Styx to cross-generationally duet with a digital Elvis, so we can mate with the memory of a vocal icon, pleasuring our audience with the twin joys of recognition and alienation, inviting them to revel in the felicity of our mimicry, and equally, the daring of our off-tune transgressions. Music psychologist (and former new wave pop maven) Glenn Schellenberg has done adult studies of musical cognition, subjecting test subjects to increasingly tiny fragments of opening bars from pop songs. He found that a majority of twenty-somethings can still accurately identify top-twenty hits , even when the sample had been reduced to the first half-second. Cognition of the pop hook still operates when reduced to 1/360th of a song.
Swept Away (Lina Wertmuller, 1974) is 116 minutes long, and is therefore composed of 167,040 frames of celluloid. Judging from the (painted) horizontal glitches in John's pictures, (the squiggly edges that serate his figures like bread knives), he chose to work from frame grabs off a fairly grotty VHS copy of the film. Bien sur, since video plays back at 29.97 frames per second, not 24, he thus had 208,591 frames at his disposal. 208,591 frames from which to select source images for his suite of eight paintings, his project of visual karaoke that fills up the photographic vessel of Lina's Veuve with his yearning, bubbly brushstrokes, not paint-by-numbers so much as trace-by-ghosts. Eight pictures that render in oil the plot and characters and theme and mood and style and structure and attitude and politics and passion and sex and sensibility of this most endearing of Wertmuller's strident class-struggle romps in seventies excess.
8 out of 208,591 is .00383,526%, which is a bit less than one two-hundredth-and-fiftieth of one per cent, or 1 image per 25,000. In contrast, the 118-second coming attraction trailer for Swept Away from the year of it's release equals 1/58th of the original in length, and does an adequate if truncated job of conveying the film's charms, particularly the binary tensions between Giancarlo's skinny Marxist pulchritude and Mariangela's heaving lire-laden decoltee, marooned like Adam and Eve, or Brooke and Christopher, or Donatella and Lou Ferrigno, or Groucho and Miss Piggy, or Marat and Marie Antoinette, on a conveniently comfy Mediterranean desert island. At 1/58th, the trailer is already a radically fragmented condensation of the original; how much more radical is John's suite? Well: exactly .33333%, or three hundred times more radical, more fragmented. We may certainly be able to recognize this Wertmuller from a single still frame, given the logic of logo-branding that an economy of film stills can traffic within (just ask Francesco Vezzoli or Yasumasa Moriumura or Cindy Sherman), but can we preserve the plot? Can a narrative survive such shrinkage? Can a Lina be told in eight pictures?
John's choices seem less driven by fidelity than fixation, gleefully (intuitively) performing an idiosyncratic mash-up of moments that aren't necessarily the most famous or central. The paintings are seemingly paired into four diptychs: (1) two extreme close-ups, one of her looking deeply into his eyes; one of him drinking deeply from a bottle; (2) the wide ship and sea shots that begin and end the movie, anchoring the palette of gold and aquamarine (indeed, John's grabbed the frame with the 'Fine' endtitle superimposed); (3) two Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe echos, one on board ship, the other on the beach (in the latter, her proffered plate like a razor-like half shell seems to both serve and slice up his oysters); and finally, most enigmatically, (4) two wide high-angle raft shots, taken seemingly seconds apart, featuring him at the motor, her in her bikini with her back to us.
The diptych form serves to emphasize the binary schematism of Lina's source, where totemic male/female, rich/poor, and radical/conservative differences are deployed as gloriously vulgar dialectics, 'othering' each other in a mirrored frenzy of contestation and class struggle. John's four diptychs flirt with such antics, yet pursue a poetics of nuance that transcends mere schematism. Lips drinking water aren't the opposite of lips wet with desire. A sunbathing naked female isn't the inverse of a reclining speedoed male. In between the two raft shots, there's no proof that anything has changed, but then, no proof that nothing has changed either.
When Madonna and Guy Ritchie performed their karaoke cover of Swept Away in 2002, they managed to both be slavish in their adherence to the original, seemingly reproducing each of the 208,591 frames, yet utterly tone-deaf to the inflections and quirks that make the Wertmuller original so endearing. In contrast, the sheer minimalism of John's eight frames score a marvelous paradox, a goal pursued avidly in the karaoke parlours of our time: in equal measure, he honours the original, yet makes this song his own.
cinema vernis. McMaster Museum of Art. Hamilton. Curator: RM Vaughan.
Catalogue with essays by: RM Vaughan, Sky Gilbert, John Greyson, Jeremy Podeswa, RM Vaughan, and Christina Ziedler.2008
8 out of 208,591, John Greyson in Cinema Vernis Catalogue. McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton
John Abrams On Deck 2007 58x 77 inches oil on canvas