Monday 2 November 2009

Death in Berlin

Live Long and Prosper, Chelsea Theatre, London

Knees buckling beneath him, Spock crumples towards death. His hand slides down the glass panel in front of him. Looking into the eyes of his friend and captain, James Kirk, he offers justification for his self-sacrifice: ‘The good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.’ With a defiant final gesture, an iconic palm with fingers split, he dies. Just outside a pound shop in Berlin.

Meanwhile, across town Frankie Dunn/Clint Eastwood removes the artificial windpipe of his million dollar baby, Maggie Fitzgerald/Hilary Swank in a laundrette and in the same city, next to an ice rink, illuminated by the soft glowing colours of a nearby funfair, Sergeant Keck/Woody Harrelson clutches his stomach and screams in agony, his platoon tending to him as he slips away.

Gob Squad’s twenty-minute film remakes seven such cinematic death sequences in and around Berlin’s public spaces. Playing on two screens, allowing comparison between the original and its everyday echo, it captures the sentiment and simultaneously sends it up: emotion marinated in ridicule.

However, it is the intellectual side of Live Long and Prosper that really thrives. Underneath the humour, there is serious investigation. The film almost turns against its own medium and outs its corruption of reality. The familiarity of these cinematic images – perfect tears rolling down perfect checks, empty eyes towards camera, red circles on white shirts – is here exposed as damning of itself. Life – death – doesn’t work like that. It is not neat; it is not eloquent; it is not tragedy-by-numbers. Yet these deaths, exquisitely framed and formed, feel real because they have come to supplant reality. After all, for most of us, death is only ever directly encountered on screens.

Hence, the very public nature of the space’s Gob Squad chose to invade. Their forcible intrusions of death, albeit fake, into the public sphere makes conspicuous that which is customarily tucked away. And yet, the city whirs on. In the background, suited legs and high heels catch the camera’s attention; shoppers browse shelves, tourists gaze out of windows, escalators climb on. The world is oblivious and, in its oblivion, the world becomes inhumane.

This makes for stark consciousness with the figures within the scenes played, where, for the most part, the focus is on the process of dying as much as the moment of death. The majority of the selected scenes involve a degree of self-consciousness. Whether it is in the grandiose monologues to those gather, tearful farewells to a loved one or simply in the eyes of a paralysed, mute fallen champion, there is an awareness of death’s encroachment. Death is the antithesis of the life that surrounds these scenes. It is a certainty always unprepared for, and these final moments of acceptance (or non-acceptance) are a mark of the impassable threshold.

Life always goes on. Where the originals cut off, Gob Squad linger on breathing corpses and those left grieving. This they suggest is the burden of the living – the really living. Films need not mourn. Perhaps they leave tears to be wiped away, but they need not mourn. Death alters life and it does so inexorably. In those contorted faces, those cradling arms, there is a thin thread towards those that pass by the recreations, caught momentarily on camera and it is in death’s permanent effects, its echoes and remnants that drag unseen behind us. For the passer-by, for all of us, oblivion is necessary. Without it, the burden of the living would be too great to bear.

Sacred Festival continues till 22 November 2009.

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