Now For Something Completely Different

As the title suggest this is something completely different. Not just completely different from anything I have previously written about but an event which can be described as completely different.

Last night I went to Adam Curtis versus Massive Attack as part of the Manchester International Festival. This was most definitely not a gig. Thankfully I was not expecting it to be. If you were expecting a gig you would be sorely disappointed. This was less a concert and more a concept.

Everything about it was novel, beginning with the venue. The Mayfield Depot is one of those buildings which is part of the urban landscape of Manchester. I must have seen the building countless times on many a train journey throughout my life. I should imagine it has not been used for anything throughout that time. As we walked towards the venue it had the feeling of something clandestine. Security was, I anticipate, deliberately conspicuous.

As you entered the building you were in the underbelly of a large sprawling industrial space from Victorian times. It was dark. A temporary bar ran along one wall. Huge steel pillars broke the ground like mighty metal trees. The crowd milled around in a state of subdued anticipation, drinking cans of Red Stripe. By some unknown signal we moved into the area for the performance. We found ourselves in a long rectangular area, white fabric screens on the two long sides and the far end.

And so the event began. Images were projected on to the three sides of the room as a voiceover began a narration. Instantly it felt like we were stood in the midst of an installation in a Modern Art Museum. This was a concept and a novel concept that was well executed. The images were sharp and slickly cut together. The setting entirely fantastic. However allied to the fantastic concept you then need fantastic content. An installation in a museum can only hold your interest for so long. We were going to be there for over an hour.

Did the content live up to the concept? Alongside the barrage of images we were treated to subtitles, voiceovers and music. It was with the music that the whole thing began to take a turn away from the promising start. The live music was delivered from behind the end screen. The light of the projections and the lighting of the stage caused the musicians to appear as ghostly figures behind Adam Curtis’ film. One of the problems however is that I have no idea when they provided the music and when the music was part of the soundtrack.

The music was not Massive Attack’s material but a collection of covers. There were brilliantly executed. Guest vocals from Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser were exquisitely delivered. The combination of covers and vocalists meant that this music had no identity. Certainly nothing that spoke to me of Massive Attack, despite Andy’s previous work with them. Theirs was not an identity which imposed itself on the evening in the slightest. They became no more than a name on a poster. This was no juxtaposition of their music with Adam Curtis’ film such as the use of the “versus” in the advertising suggested. This was no collaboration of the two in producing music that spoke of the same themes as the film. The provision of ear plugs as you entered the venue spoke of the fact that the music would roar to us. It did not. Massive Attack were reduced to the role of the man playing the organ in the picturehouses of the pre-talkie era.

So what of the film? This was a quick walk through of aspects of modern history interwoven with personal stories such as the story of pop artist Pauline Boty and her tragic sacrifice of cancer treatment to save her unborn child and then the tragedy that subsequently befell the child. The basic themes were that 24 hour news is conditioning the thinking of society, analysing data cannot predict the future, politics is often corrupt, the West should not try to impose itself on other cultures, other cultures also do bad things and Donald Trump is the root of all evil.

The politics of the piece was just all too Lower Sixth common room earnest. It was the stuff of a General Studies A-O Level rather than an analytical thesis of political control. It was entirely possible to predict both the course and the content of the narrative. The whole feel of the film was that it was “clunking”. A sledgehammer voice of the author’s view. It may well have been that the ear plugs were not for the decibel level of the music at all but were a figurative comment by the door staff on the subtlety of the film.

Amongst the images were interesting and informative material from Chernobyl. But for every moment that did cause you to pause for thought came the heavy touch, such as the splicing of well known footage of the Ceausescu being executed with images of Jane Fonda exercising. Clunk-click every segue.

Another sequence showed an Afghan child seemingly rapt watching a blonde haired doll which danced in a hip-rotating mechanical style. A clash of cultures. Save for the boy’s eyes were not on the doll at all. They were fixed on the lens of the camera. The method of capturing the moment becoming the moment itself. Suddenly the whole self-conscious nature of all we were experiencing was brought sharply into focus.

9/11 was a story told by scenes from Hollywood blockbusting films showing the destruction of tall buildings and significant American landmarks from films such as Independence Day. It was telling of the heavy-handed nature of such imagery that the hints at the events at the World Trade Centre in the recent Star Trek film were more effective than this. And it is not a good sign when a Star Trek film deals with such a significant event better than a film by a celebrated documentary maker.

The whole occasion was best summed up by a woman who I saw bump in to a friend midway through the evening. After exchanging kisses one said to the other “so what do you think?”. “Well it’s all very…..well…and I mean….it’s…….” responded the other.

And it was. It was all very… not much of anything.

The best part of the performance (screening?) came in the last five minutes. Suddenly the music seemed to synch with the film. The two seemed to contribute to each other. The audience momentarily transformed from detached museum patrons to participants in the production. The music and the footage combined with the setting to make it feel like you were in the midst of an all encompassing, wonderful music video. The crowd moved rhythmically for the first time. It was a brief moment but gave you a sense of what it could have been.

Then it was all over and we left the screening area. Heading out of the exit doors we surprisingly moved in to another long arch-roofed train depot. Dry ice filled the air. One searchlight scanned the departing crowd. On the platform edge, security officers stood with Dobermans on leashes. A frisson ran through the audience. A sense of theatre was produced by the combination of a few simple things in addition to the setting. Suddenly we felt like “fugees” in Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men. A subtle and simple creation of a dystopian world.

As we finally spilled out into the night I was left with the feeling that it was a great vehicle staged in a great venue but lacked content. I was not bored. However I was not entertained and, perhaps more disappointingly, I was not engaged. The star of the evening was the Mayfield Depot. The advertising flyers should have described it as Building versus Production. And in that contest the Building won easily.

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