Bright Lights, Beat City
Talk about a festival of lights. A few tiny, multicolored illuminations slowly traverse a black screen. Then a few white lines scoot across, like cartoon snakes on a mission. They're followed by bigger golden bolts, coursing like molten lava through the darkness. A veritable riot of abstract lights ensues, with all kinds of squiggles, dots, and splashes that dance, play, and fight as gracefully as the elephant hallucinations in Dumbo.
It's the most compelling moment in Riz Maslen's Super 8 travelogue "La Prochaine Fois." (The sultry electronica purveyor better known as Neotropic will screen the film when she performs at the Dinkytowner Café on January 16.) The scene is also such a nicely executed piece of abstraction that you might need a moment to realize what you're seeing is traffic at night, like Koyaanisqatsi, only shot from a moving vehicle. But if such cinematography seems more like the work of Harry Smith than Godfrey Reggio, it's because Maslen made the epic in its entirety for about what the creators of The Blair Witch Project probably spent on takeout. Consequently, most of the film has the low-res, deep-fried feel of a classic '70s home movie: The screen-fuzz effect of the traffic scene makes the dancing taillights look like the glow of a really good nightclub light show.
One thing that discos and abstract films have in common is that without any music they tend to be mildly diverting at best. The soundtrack to "La Prochaine Fois" gives the film most of its power and its commercial appeal. (In 2001, Ntone released "La Prochaine Fois" as a double CD, including both the soundtrack and CD-ROM.) Maslen is a master of the art of sampling, never letting the electronic pyrotechnics get in the way of the music. She juxtaposes electronically generated sounds with those made by "real" instruments in such novel ways that you can't really tell where one begins and the other ends. And her musical styles follow suit: Maslen adroitly mixes gestures gleaned from the world of dance music with popwise sensibilities and an experimentalist's sense of adventure.
This sort of subtle audio surrealism serves her well on the film's soundtrack. You can almost smell the tumbleweed drifting gently across the road on the guitar- and harmonica-driven "Sunflower Girl"--as fine a piece of cowboy (er, cowgirl) electronica as has ever been committed to polycarbonate. She gets even more organic on "The Man Who Catches Clouds, " one of three tracks featuring ex-Verve guitarist Nick McCabe. Maslen chops McCabe's guitar track well, loops it courageously, and adds a well-tossed selection of melodic electronic flourishes. The result sounds like a funkier version of something electroacoustic pioneer Pierre Schaeffer might have done...if he had been reincarnated in India a couple of decades ago and grown up to be a Bollywood composer.
Ultimately, the soundtrack to "La Prochaine Fois" seems every bit as refined as the film is raw. This is perfectly understandable given the fact that the film is Maslen's first. Still, as an artist, she's no amateur: Maslen has been making music for well over a decade. Initiated by friends and collaborators Future Sound of London into the mysteries of electronic soundmaking early in the '90s, she assembled a home studio and became Neotropic in 1994. She signed a deal with prestigious Ninja Tune imprint Ntone the following year, becoming one of the first women to break through the electronica gender barrier that persists to this day.
But, as Maslen explained in an interview with www.pinknoise.com, she's never really been driven by gender issues. It's crossing boundaries of genre--and media--that excites her. She's already made a second film, Vigilare, with likeminded Dutch experimentalist Kaffe Matthews. (This sophomore effort, along with additional visuals, will also be screened during Neotropic's Dinkytowner performances.) And Maslen has a digital video camera now, meaning she can edit film on the same Mac G4 she uses for making music. Given time and even just a wee budget, this inveterate worldbeater just might turn out something that could start a whole new wave of Mondo films. And she'd probably do the whole damn thing herself.
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