Mashing with Radiohead: a creative consumer’s “Daughter of Limbs”

Posted by | April 27, 2011 | 6,664 views

ABOUT THE MASHUP:

I literally “put this together” on April 15, 2011 while in Palm Springs and hoping to get cleared for a press pass to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. The press pass never worked out, but this mashup seems to have. It was assembled while staying in Palm Springs at the old cottage of silent film actress Gloria Swanson (not a local hotel). Trapped in its Mad Men-era decor, I hit a writer’s block while trying to get a Coachella-themed article done for The Music Void blog. I sat down to watch some television and shake things up a bit when this strange film started playing on Turner Classic Movies. The film visuals were bizarre, the Theremin-ish music was eerie, and the voiceover so over-the-top spooky that after twenty minutes or so I couldn’t handle any more. Naturally, what this film needed was some Radiohead (so if you’d like to “tune” in, that’s a hint folks!)

*Here we go again with the much-discussed new album.

ABOUT THE FILM:

The film used in this mashup is an “as-is” public domain version of the 1955 film DAUGHTER OF HORROR, available for download on archive.org in various formats. It is a recut of the 1953 pre-art house film DEMENTIA by John Parker – his only film – which faced numerous legal battles over censorship due to its graphic nature. Though it’s supposed to be a long dream sequence of a young Beatnik woman, the awakened “Gamine” and her switchblade leads to a “mysterious stabbing”. This content was deemed highly offensive at the time, resulting in over ten attempts to pass New York’s censors before an edited version was finally licensed for exhibition.

The unusual film is an expressionist visual narrative with no dialogue, it’s more of a silent film with musical score added. The only spoken words in the film are delivered through an occasional voiceover added to the DAUGHTER OF HORROR version, but not part of the original film, so as to highlight the film’s central issue of dream vs. reality. In a bizarre Kubrickian twist, by The Tonight Show’s own Ed “Here’s Johnny” McMahon provides the voiceover, which is both campy and effective. Whichever version, I’m sure Dementia / Daughter of Horror had a big influence on the mind of a young David Lynch (“Mulholland Drive” anyone?).

*For more on both versions of the film, see David Kalat’s article at the Turner Classic Movies website, or the DVD Savant review of the 2000 Kino Video DVD release (which includes an informative “case study” on the film)..

ABOUT THE RADIOHEAD MASHING:

I’m not exactly new to this. As a matter of disclosure, while teaching cultural theory, pop culture, and new media for a number of years, I ended up having some good times mixing together old silent film with Radiohead albums and watching the “Wizard of Oz vs. Dark Side of the Moon” effects unfold. This first occurred in late 2003 with Radiohead’s KID A (2000) and AMNESIAC (2001) when combined with Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. The result was the “Kid A with Movie Camera” mashup.

Scene from Man with a Movie Camera

Early DIY filmmaking: Vertov places the cameraman on a pedestal

The Radiohead-Vertov cocktail was later expanded to interactively include Vertov’s earlier work, 1924′s KINO-EYE, as well as his main rival Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 agit-prop film THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. This later interactive mashup DVD was a key part of a Masters thesis project intended to experiment with DVD Studio Pro software and push the storage limits of a 4.4 GB disc. Also included in the disc is an alternate soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s FIELD COMMANDER COHEN live album from the 1978 tour (released in 2001) and parts of his 1988 album I’M YOUR MAN featuring the song Cold War-themed “First We Take Manhattan”.

Capturing an oncoming train

Vertov demonstrates how to capture a locomotive and not get hurt

In early 2004, the Radiohead song “Palo Alto” off the AIRBAG / HOW AM I DRIVING EP got me thinking about the movie 1927 silent film METROPOLIS. This resulted in the “City of the Future” mashup using 1997′s OK COMPUTER, 2003′s HAIL TO THE THIEF, and the Hollywood Classics Collector’s Edition version of the film (which runs just under two hours). To round things out I threw 1993′ PABLO HONEY and 1995′s THE BENDS together with the 1919 German Expressionist film THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI just for the hell of it. At that point I was out of Radiohead albums to work with and wasn’t really expecting to make a return visit to mashup land.

In 2006, I did attempt a couple other experimental mashups with famous silent films and albums. Inspired by DJ Spooky’s (“Rebirth of a Nation“), I first attempted an ironic mashup of the 1915 Confederate propaganda film THE BIRTH OF A NATION with Cracker’s 1996 album THE GOLDEN AGE and their 1993 breakthrough KEROSENE HAT. Then came some incredibly disturbing results of mashing up Tool’s 1997 opus AENIMA with another highly controversial propaganda piece, 1935′s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL by Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl. At that point I basically had enough. There’s only so much of that kind of content you can take in before it starts wearing on you, which I guess it’s why it was used for effectively for propaganda purposes.

In a city of the future

Metropolis: In a city of the future, people won't have time for 2 hour+ movies...

Furthermore, with the exception of Vertov’s 40+ minute MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, these old silent films were so long in terms of running time that they were hard to watch in our current soundbite age. Even with the more familiar soundtracks used in the mashups, there’s still a whole lot of music content that has to fit well enough with whichever version of the film is being used. Just the thought of figuring out where to begin, what music to use, and whether the marginal return of another mashup that essentially showed the same remixing concept was… well… the process became less and less appealing and didn’t seem worth the effort.

Also, during this time there were newer, restored, and extended/updated versions being released of these old films, for example, the much longer Kino-produced restorations of METROPOLIS (including a 2010 version after new footage was found in a vault). These alternate versions put in question which version to use and whether the soundtrack could also be extended to adapt to the longer running times. Fortunately, the very unique DAUGHTER OF HORROR, as a film noir artpiece is refreshingly just under 55 minutes long.

REGARDING TECHNICAL PROCESS:

As mentioned, I was in Palm Springs at an old converted cottage-hotel waiting for a Coachella press pass when I put this together. Since I only had my laptop, iPhone, and barely an internet wi-fi connection available at the time, there were some interesting technical considerations for putting the pieces together on April 15 and 16, 2011.

Side A – THE DAUGHTER OF LIMBS

The mashup was initially created on the evening of Friday, April 15 when, at the previously-mentioned twenty-minute mark of the film, I realized I had to mix it up. So I cued Radiohead’s latest release, THE KING OF LIMBS, on my iPhone to approximately the corresponding twenty-minute mark of the album. Since I had no way to pause or rewind the Turner Classic Movies broadcast on the ancient TV set in this Mad Men cottage, I realized any precise “syncs” going between the film and the music wouldn’t necessarily hold up a in an actual software-based edit. However, I could get a good feel for how well the mood of the film was working (or not) with the music.

Thom Yorke demonstrates how to interpret the song "Lotus Flower" through viral video and dance

On this first viewing, I essentially started the mashup a couple minutes into “Lotus Flower” at the graveyard scene of the film, which was then followed on the TKoL album by “Codex”. So far so good. The moods were matching well, and chances for some nice “sync” moments between the songs and the cinematography/editing seemed likely to hold up. That said, at this point of the creative process I had no idea if the first 20 minutes of the this experiment would work out. With no way of pausing or rewinding the film, I just has to let it play out.

Side B: Somewhere over IN RAINBOWS and into DEMENTIA

Meanwhile, I was anticipating the song coming up next after “Codex” and whether it would fit with the feel of the film. Deciding that the acoustic guitar-based “Give Up the Ghost” wasn’t going to work, and anticipating at least another half hour of film, I pulled the plug on TKoL and cued up “15 Step” on IN RAINBOWS. There was no sense in going back to TKoL because the closing song, “Separator”, was a bit too cheerful (yeah. Radiohead. cheerful) to come in at the midway point of this bizarre film. Yet IN RAINBOWS seemed to be working out nicely with “Bodysnatchers”, “Nude”, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, and “All I Need”.

Anticipating another acoustic-guitar based song with no rhythm track (“Faust Arp”) that probably wasn’t going to fit in with the film’s progression towards a climax, I skipped ahead to “Reckonner”. This seemed to do the trick, leaving the song to fade out as the protagonist awakens from her dream. Not knowing if the film was actually about to end, I let the next song on IN RAINBOWS, “House of Cards”, play out while the camera slowly pulled back through the apartment window. The film then ended very close to where the lyric “No matter how it ends, no matter how it starts”. Works for me.

A JIGSAW FALLING INTO PLACE

The next day, with no internet connection to work with, I wondered where a copy of DAUGHTER OF HORROR could be found, in Palm Springs or online. I went down the street to the local Starbucks for their free wi-fi and was surprised to find not only the interesting backstory to Parker’s original DEMENTIA film, but also that both it and DAUGHTER OF HORROR were considered “public domain” and available through the archive.org website. I downloaded a 320×240 MP4 version of the film, then brought it into Final Cut Pro along with the WAV and MP3 versions of THE KING OF LIMBS and IN RAINBOWS albums that I had purchased and downloaded from Radiohead’s site when they were released.

Ed McMahon haunts the film

A young Ed McMahon haunts the Tonight Show of Horror

At this point I still had no clue as to whether the first twenty minutes of THE KING OF LIMBS would work with the first twenty minutes of DAUGHTER OF HORROR, so I went ahead and assembled these building blocks. The opening track “Bloom” had the right mood, especially with the barely visible narrator’s face coming in with Thom Yorke’s haunting first vocals. The sudden awakening from the dream edit nearly timed perfectly with the song’s transition to its second verse, so I ended up using this as the first synchronization point. Then I simply lined up all the following tracks on TKoL up to and including “Codex”.

For the IN RAINBOWS second half, I worked backwards from the “No matter how it ends” lyric in “House of Cards” and lined up the preceding tracks while removing “Faust Arp” from the mix. This left an overlapping spot with “15 Step” and the transition sound effects that are part of “Codex” and lead into “Give Up the Ghost”. I cut a slight bit of these sound effects off of the end of “Codex” and added a short cross-fade into “15 Step” and the soundtrack was essentially complete.

The only remaining issue was mixing in a little bit of the original film score and fading into the opening notes/rhythms of “Bloom” to fill in the dead air. I exported the new Radiohead soundtrack to an MP4 file, copy and pasted the entire video track from the DAUGHTER OF HORROR download, and to paraphrase John Madden, “BLOOM! You got yerself a mashup!”

SOME FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

While assembling the pieces of what I call “Daughter of Limbs – In Dementia” I briefly thought about also adding my own credits at the very end of this work, that is, where the film has cut off but “House of Cards” is still fading out. I even thought about overlaying a “Music by Radiohead” at the opening credit for George Antheil. I ultimately decided against these because I didn’t want to alter anything with respect to the film’s length and visual content in the freely available archive.org version.

Radiohead, in studio for the In Rainbows sessions

Price? What price? (Talking digital music strategy w/ Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien, and Johnny Greenwood)

Upon returning to Vancouver, I also wanted to track down a DVD copy of the film in order to see how much better its resolution and quality might be. Especially since the darkened opening scene with the faded overlay of the narrator’s face is particularly hard to see. The local Videomatica specialty film shop had the Kino Video-restored version that included both DEMENTIA and DAUGHTER OF HORROR, and its quality is much improved over the archive.org versions. However, it doesn’t appear to be exactly the same edit, nor does the narrator’s face seem to be any more discernible in the opening scene. As a result, I decided to keep working with the archive.org versions and downloaded the higher resolution 3.2 GB file, adjusted the brightness and contrast a bit in Final Cut, then exported an iPod video version with a deinterlacing filter on the lower (Even) field.

In this way, and with these instructions, anyone able to download the same freely available version of DAUGHTER OF HORROR can recreate the mashup if they have their own copies of Radiohead’s last two albums. In fact, since I only purchased the MP3 version of IN RAINBOWS, a better version of the soundtrack can be produced with full quality replacements for these tracks. In this regard, and with respect to this entire creative process and finished or unfinished product, there are a number of cultural implications here with respect to “creative consumers” and rights management in a digital ecosystem of reconfigurable media pieces. We can leave that alone for the time being, as it will be the subject of an upcoming entry on the inner workings of consumer/producer value and rights management in the digital ecosystem. In the meantime, we sip on this latest digital cocktail.

Oh, and one last thing… about process.

Prior to heading to Palm Springs for the Coachella Festival, I was covering the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, known as “NAB Show 2011”. Soon-to-be-retired film director Kevin Smith (“Clerks”, “Chasing Amy”, “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”) gave the final day’s keynote. One of these days, that is, when I have twenty-five years of free time, I’ll attempt to transcribe everything he said onstage (he packs a verbal punch, to say the least).

Kevin Smith talks horror movies

Kevin Smith, at NAB 2011, talks horror movies and his penultimate effort as a director: Red State

During his “address” – which primarily concerned his recently released horror movie Red State – an audience member asked Smith about his creative process. Let’s just say it wasn’t a surprising answer from the guy who plays Silent Bob. One of these days I’ll also have more to say on applying Smith’s reflective practice techniques while in Palm Spring, but for now I can say it was both influential and incompatible with the creative process that led to this Radiohead and film noir mashup.

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Posted by on Apr 27 2011. Filed under Digital, featured, Wide Angle. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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