The five-day Cage-o-rama presented jointly by Anthology Film Archives and the John Cage Trust in January showcased thirty-three films of the legendary musician and composer, spanning the decades from the forties to the nineties. The material for, by, and about Cage (and friends) ran the gamut from experimental films of phemenological perception to a wacky burlesque of Nam June Paik’s "video bra," where cellist Charlotte Moorman’s boobs served as both objects of desire and reflections on the nature of high-end video art.
Cage’s body of work is vast, and for most readers more renowned than actually seen or heard. Cage was best known for composing musical events according to random or "chance" methods, as well as for his books, recordings, and the pithy Cageisms that flowed from his and his compatriots’ lips, profound enough for a lifetime of contemplation. The unmistakable advantage to viewing Cage’s films now is that they take you back to a time when the oeuvre’s breakthrough moments were real, the perspectives fresh, and the thought-train unparalleled.
On August 29, 1952, the pianist David Tudor played "4 minutes, 33 seconds" of silence at an auditorium in the town of Woodstock, the silence that changed everything. Cage filmed and reenacted the same performance in the l970’s smack in the middle of Harvard Square, stating to the assembled crowd, "This is Zen for TV." He flipped open the piano cover while traffic roared by, and, except for periodically checking his stopwatch, did nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Then workmen slowly carted the piano off while Cage keened like a distressed Japanese monk. Obviously, that was not part of the original piece.
The Anthology festival could be divided into three categories: experimental works, collaborations, and more traditional documentaries, including a number of films focused on Cage’s lifelong partner, dancer Merce Cunningham. Merce, now in his eighties, attended many of the screenings, which added a poignant note as audience members saw a wizened master watch his younger self in his prime prancing around like a young colt. The late, great ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev summed the moment up by commenting in Elliot Caplan’s film, Cage/Cunningham, "When you are young, dance is pretty, but when you are old, dance is wise."
The film that really knocked my socks off was one that those with an MTV sensibility might label tedious and boring. The eighteen-minute black-and-white Chess Film Noise, made by Cage in 1988 in collaboration with Frank Scheffer, is a flat view of a chess game in progress shot directly from overhead. It filled the screen with just a board and pieces, with occasional guest appearances by a hand manipulating rooks, knights, and pawns. The image went out of focus and became fuzzy as the camera hovered straight above the chessboard with no fancy panning or long shots. The camera zoomed in sharply on particular chess pieces and then fuzzed out again. The pieces disappeared and only an extremely out-of-focus checkered board remained. These images were shown in random sequence, sometimes with a hand moving a piece, sometimes not. The same squares appeared again and again in different variations, using only focus and subtle differences of depth of field and duration. On the surface it was the same thing again and again, but each time it was actually new.
The chessboard resembled the contours of one’s mind, the rising and falling of the breath, and different mental states. It was like participating in a Zen sesshin of your own projections played out against a bare wall. If you watched this film in a movie theater full of cucaracha minds in New York City like I did, that became the environment. The guy next to me couldn’t take it— his mind squiggled like a buttery noodle, and he kept examining his minuscule hangnails in the dark rather than paying attention to the relentless images on screen.
Multiple times Cage discussed his visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, where he went to find out what true silence was. The chamber blocked out all external noise—but he heard a high-pitched whine (his nervous system) and a low hum (his blood coursing through his body) and concluded that modern day rhythm "is not like horses going but more like airplanes moving through space." Cage believed that "we are all making music all the time, we just aren’t aware of it." For him, the chamber ultimately led to "a change of mind, a turning around." His work became "an exploration of non-intention." To carry it out faithfully," he "developed a complicated composing means using I Ching chance operations, making [his] responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices."
Nam June Paik, the father of video art, met John Cage in Germany during the late 1950’s in what was characterized by the composer Alvin Lucier as a "somewhat violent relationship." Nam June grabbed a scissor and cut off Cage’s tie to symbolize, as he later explained on film, cutting Cage’s formal manner to "remove his prejudices." The erotic rambunctiousness of Nam June and his collaborator and wife, Shigeko Kubota, popped up in the festival in a number of films. The first, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, made by Shigeko in 1972, offered a Sergeant Pepper–type aesthetic, with solarized, colorized pastiches of Marcel sitting at a chessboard accompanied by his wife Teeny. But the kaleidoscopic homage wore thin after a while. Shigeko then showed Cage wearing a bizarre headband wired up to a machine that displayed his spiking and pulsing brain waves as he happily puffed away on a cigarette, while Nam June fussed and fidgeted in the background with the machine’s knobs.
Three of Nam June’s films from the seventies were also shown, most notably Global Groove, which opened to Mitch Ryder’s rollicking "Devil With A Blue Dress On" and included a roster of cameo appearances including a bearded, chanting, psychedelic Allen Ginsberg, hoofing tappers, a highly stylized Korean court dancer framed by the Statue of Liberty, and two unbelievably hilarious and legendary performances by the cellist Charlotte Mooreman. In the first, she played the "cello" on a series of three stacked TV sets, which in turn ran live images of her playing the cello TV sets; in the second, Nam June was on his knees nuzzling between her breasts as she delivered a wallop to the side of his head for copping a feel, but continued to play Nam June as cello, using her bow on the single string that stretched from his heel to his head.
But the real cut-up was a thirty-minute episode of the quiz show I’ve Got a Secret from l960, where Cage was one of the contestants. (Zsa Zsa Gabor was another.) When Cage appeared, the announcer, jettisoning any pretense of a secret, skipped the foreplay and introduced him as "the most controversial figure in the music world." Cage launched into an explanation of his pressing problem: He wanted to use live music from four radios as part of his composition, but a union dispute had broken out between the electricians and stage hands about who should plug the radios into an electric socket, and it was still unresolved as of show time. Cage decided to skip the plug-and-play, and said he would smash the radios just for the sound of the crash. Like a modern-day Rube Goldberg he used sounds from a boiling pressure cooker, poured a drink of whisky and downed a swig, mixed ice cubes in a blender, plinked a piano string, spritzed a seltzer glass, watered roses in a bathtub, blew on kazoos, and of course smashed those four radios to smithereens. He then informed the no doubt baffled studio audience, "If you act in the field of sounds unintentionally there is no concern about the beginning, middle, or ending, and that process resembles our environment."
One rare cinematic tidbit was a fifteen-minute Maya Deren piece from 1944, At Land, where Cage portrayed an elegiac student walking down a road. And there was the lovely Stan Brakhage–like Ryoanji from 1990 by Lawrence F. Brose, in which colored film emulsions skidded by, accompanied by the high mournful whine of a Zen monk chanting bizarre modernists screeches. The piece’s minimal Japanese sensibility exposed poetic patterns like those of a delicate chrysanthemum, thin and wiry in a palate of black, white, dark blue, turquoise, sienna, red, and a tinge of yellow.
Minimalism, however, was thrown overboard in Dick Fontaine’s 1967 film Sound, in which the virtuoso horn player Rahsaan Roland Kirk blew three saxophones at once and cajoled his jazz audience to play whistles alongside him. Cage dispersed pithy quotes like, "There is no such thing as no sound—just what we intend and don’t intend," and asked the question, "Would we ever be able to get so we think the ugly sounds are beautiful? Sounds are just vibrations, isn’t that true?" It was a strange juxtaposition, his acerbic, dry wit and Kirk’s bebop humanism and virtuosity. Kirk proved that sounds boil down to pure vibrations by playing to his most captive audience ever—caged animals in the Central Park Zoo, who joyfully jumped up and down to a beat they couldn’t understand but certainly felt.
That final evening of the festival I left the theater in the midst of a winter storm. Children heaved snowballs at one another and laughed beneath the cloak of the blizzard. I heard their sounds create a muffled echo inside the storm. Cage had taught me to listen anew. Without his inspiration, surely I would have missed the moment.
Variations: John Cage Film Video Music Festival was shown January 21–25 at Anthology Film Archives.