Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Return of Georgina Starr, or, Theda

There's a real sense of occasion about the Artprojx premiere of Georgina Starr's film Theda, which is receiving it's one off debut at the Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Square. As Giorgio and I turn into the square there are crowds of people, crash barriers, paparazzi, searchlights, men in sharp suits - oh, no, wait a minute: this is the premiere of the new James Bond film.
We skirt round the 007 crowds and up the side street to the Prince Charles. There are film posters outside and the hoading up above the cinema has THEDA by GEORGINA STARR in blissfully huge letters, which I love. ('You would,' says Sara Preibsch who I sit next to in the screening).
Missing in action some time ago (at least in London and to my notes), tonight is the return of Georgina Starr, coming back with a sold out screening of her new film work. There's a lot of faces around: artists, dealers, gallerists, writers, hopefuls, even a lonely blogger...it is, like I said, an occasion.
The work is accompanied, as every silent film should be, by a live band. Tonight is the London Improvisers Orchestra. And tonight will be the first time they have seen the film, undoubtedly putting a bit of pressure and excitement into their playing.
The lights go down, the curtain parts, the film begins.
The word THEDA appears in white on a black screen, followed by the word Prelude. Georgina's face appears in black and white. It's that face I recognise from her previous works: part beautiful woman, part little girl, part street urchin, part cute ventriloquist's dummy. It is truly a great face. The band shimmy about with a bit of clomping and parping. What's she gonna do? What's going on? She's has panda eye silent film make up. She starts pulling faces - no, expressions. Slowly, precisely, she goes through a whole repetoire of expressions, culled, I shouldn't wonder, from a selecton of silent films. She's awestruck, frightened, overcome, angry, afraid, terrorised, saddened, maddened, amazed...she gently moves from one state to another, letting each emotion have its time, its peak, and then moves on...
Eventually, this fades to black and the screen presents the word ACT.
What follows, as I take it, is a sort of story made up from various scenes that Theda Bara is known to have played but which are no longer extant (according to the press blurb some of the film stock spontaneously combusted). The 'story', therefore, goes a little like this:
Theda/Starr is a sort of medium, weirdly dressed in a bizarre headress (above) who is visited by a female client (also Starr). The medium goes into spasm, turns a misty green (a curious and surprising effect in a black and white film - and the only time a colour appears in the whole piece) then slumps over. Cut to a picture of a sphinx and Theda/Starr on its feet, looking up at a sort of crystal ball in which she herself is fighting some invisible demons. Then to London. A gentleman, who'll we learn is called Ronaldo Wright, with moustache and large pipe, appears. He too is played, naturally, by Georgina. He stops in his perambulation along the street to examine a poster advertising a performance by a sapphic Theda (called something like CleoSaloSappho...). Clearly excited by this he hurries off to the theatre. As he leaves we focus on the poster for a while longer and watch as the letters of Theda's name rearrange themselves to spell DEATH....
Ronaldo/Starr watches Theda/Starr perform a bewildering range of bizarre dances, all the while drawing her in a succession of detailed pencil sketches. She dances with a dead mans head; in egyptian costume; I think there's even a dance of the seven veils in there somewhere...
After the performance(s) Ronaldo/Starr sends her a note, asking if she would pose for a sculpture. She arrives at his studio. A lengthy series of shots then show the scupltor, Ronaldo/Starr, wrestling with the clay, fashioning appalling lumps and bumps of scuplture, like Rebecca Warren on acid. Somehow, later, the sculpture is revealed to us - and a horrified Theda/Starr - as a double portrait of her standing back to back with herself. One the one side the young and beautiful her, on the other a wizened and deathly looking version. The work is called The Allegory of Vanity. During the night a cat burglar (complete with whiskers, no less) creeps in through the skylight and knocks the sculpture over, smashing it. Ronaldo returns the next morning to find it in pieces and, gathering them up, sits at the table, lamenting and raging at the gods, fuelling his despair with plentiful gulps of absinthe until, inevitably, he passes out, the pieces of the sculpture lying around him. Finally we see a vision of Theda/Starr prone over a supine skeleton. She leans forward and seems to kiss the skull's nonexistent lips.
Then follows: EPILOGUE.
A women is speaking to camera, but, of course, her words are silent and indecipherable and the quality of the film renders her almost invisible beneath the scratches and the age of the stock, which, after a short while completely falls apart and burns away.
We all give a big round of applause. There are some cheers and some whistles.
Georgina, with a sweeping flash of blonde hair, stands up from the audience and takes a shy bow, turns and applauds the musicians.
We all leave.
The press blurb says that the film questions 'ideas of loss and neglect within all art forms. Looking at deception and pretence within both art and acting; the mythologising of artworks, performers and stars; the lure of vanity and obssession with possesing artists and art; and finally confronting mortality, ownership and ultimately destruction and death.'
I think they pretty much have it covered. After all, that's a pretty good checklist for any artwork to stand up against.
I was thinking about memory and loss though. And difficulties in communication.
No one makes silent films now. But we've all just sat thru one and watched as Georgina performed a range of emotions for us. Was she communicating those emotions? Or was she practising communicating? How do we communicate those emotions? So often in life the real emotions decend upon us without any chance for rehearsal. We can often make mistakes. But here she is, showing how to do them. And it's all being subtly subverted by the musicians, who are also scrutinising the expressions in order to provide fitting accompaniment. It's safe to say that their interpretation didn't always fit with mine. We couldn't agree. We were all looking at Georgina but we were all seeing something slightly different.
We couldn't reach agreement on the middle of the piece, either, the ACT. The story was like a series of vignettes, strung together by Theda's presence within them. They were like fragments of memories tied together for the purpose of understanding. While the press info says that this shouldn't be seen as a film about Theda, it neglects to say that this could be seen as a film about Georgina. Or rather about Georgina's 'memory' of Theda. It's rare to spend time on something that you don't, on some level, fall a little in love with, or empathise with, become protector and champion of. And Georgina must have a done a big piece of research into Theda and her life to arrive at where she is now. She has rescued her from the rotting films and history books, and she has rescued a part of herself too. I wonder: who will do that for us? Who will represent us in 90 years time? Keep us from the dark corners of history, quietly self combusting? What fragments will we leave behind?
That last decaying piece of film at the end. Was that Theda? Or was that Georgina again? It was hard to tell. Hard to tell not only what that woman was saying, but who indeed, she was. A scratched, fading, literally decaying image of a silent figure, talking but not being heard. A memory, but not a very good or clear one.
And then, suddenly, she is burned away.
Theda, or Georgina, is gone.
But not, now, forgotten.


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