Revenge of the dead IndiansJohn Cage: The Revenge of the Dead Indians, 1993

“If the questions aren’t good the chance operations aren’t good either.” – John Cage

What a mess this film was. Which isn’t to say that there are wonderful bits in it but as a whole it is a total disaster.  It’d be fruitless to try to describe the whole thing but the gist of it is four separate components. First off there is a late interview with John Cage, which is as you’d expect filled with interesting material.  Then there are arty bits that initially are static camera placements with some of Cage’s music playing.  Later the arty bits are continuous movement as if shot out of a moving vehicle,  layered bits that rather look like 80s music videos and quick cut shots usually made up of previous material. Then there are interviews with various people, at first contemporaries of Cage and then people influenced by him, then = people seemingly completely unrelated to him and finally man on the street type interviews of people talking about their perception of the surrounding sound.  All of this is of course cut between at various lengths, apparently from a frame up to 4’33” (v. clever) in length. Finally there is some bits of actual performance of Cages work, but the least amount of time in the film is devoted to pure music performance.

The primary problem with “tributes” that rely on interviews (as opposed to say a musical tribute) is that in essence they aren’t really about the subject but are about the person being interviewed.  This is particularly the case in this film as along with relevant people such as Cunningham, Xenakis and so on they chose to interview people like Dennis Hopper, Matt Groening and Rutger Hauer. While I’ve enjoyed these people’s own work in varying degrees they really had nothing to offer on Cage and as readers from his work didn’t really do it much justice.  At one point, completely apropos of nothing they have Hauer read his final monologue from Blade Runner.  The cutting of the film (which apparently followed the fibonacci sequence for the lengths, though of course 4’33” being the max) renders many of the actual valuable interviews a fragmented mess.  Personally I’d like to have just had the Cage interview as a whole, then selectable interviews with the other people.

A nice dating element was the obsession with chaos. Now Cage obviously used chance throughout his career and of course in the 80s and 90s Chaos Theory became very popular and Cage of course recognized the connections.  So as this was pretty late in his life and right during the vogue of chaos he often was speaking in those terms. They took this as a liberty to go pretty far afield, with bits by Mandelbrot and Murray Gell-Mann.  At this point it really began to feel like a certain type of PBS documentary. It crammed in a wide variety of stuff that the casual yuppie PBS viewer was aware of and interested in in a superficial level and they present it. The further they’d go with this the less Cage was interviewed and the subjects made no connect to him whatsoever. This went so far as to be talking about artificial intelligence which Cage had absolutely no connection with and no (afaik) interest in. The only (very thin) connection was that Marvin Minsky knew Cage and he of course is a pioneer in AI.  But they other AI people they talked to never even mentioned Cage. Nor did they tie AI into Chaos which certain connections can be made, but not at this level of depth this film was operating at. Not to mention that the film was about an American composer!

The music in general was decent with performers such as Stephen Drury, Margaret Leng Tan and Irwin Arditti.  But there was so little of it.  The live segments were almost always overlaid pieces, which is perfectly acceptable, but in this film it  came across as a way to have more music listed then time devoted to it. During the arty bits, they’d more often then not play natural sounds, some of the layered and cut up by the documentarians, rather then Cages music.  Again this fits into the PBS vibe where instead of “forcing” the viewers into hearing, say, oscillating feedback with Cage intoning mesostics over the top, you give them vacuous statements from such baby boomer friendly wags as Frank Zappa. It should noted that in the accompanying interview the filmmakers make it pretty clear they were a lot more excited to be talking to Zappa then to or about Cage. His connection to Cage was about the most tangential making this particularly annoying.

Finally the length must be mentioned the film is two and a half hours long and as I think the above comments point out, there was huge amounts of masturbatory material.  The film came to natural endings (usual on a nice quote) about four times and then they’d pull something else, usually totally out of their ass, and go off on this tangent.  The next to final theme was interviewing shop owners in Paris where they would talk about how the surrounding noise effects them.  Sure you can make a connection to accepting outside sounds and listening to noises and so on, but it was so belabored at this point and absolutely superfluous. The final shot was a static 4’33” of rubble in a street with cars coming by and the natural sounds. A nice enough way to go out, but the film at this point had completely worn out it’s welcome.

The final analysis is of opportunity squandered. They had a great Cage interview, plenty of great musicians on hand not to mention the Mode library and excellent interviews with people who knew Cage, were contemporaries or connected in various ways, but they couldn’t display the restraint required to put together a solid piece.  If they had forgone the arty bits, using more live performance for the interstitial bits, focused more on the music and only used the relevant interviews, plus kept it to about an hour and a half, this could have been great.

The Revenge of the Dead Indians can be bought direct from Mode Records.

(initially published on ihatemusic)