Is this the end? This is the end.
What the hell is The End of Cinematics?
It’s been almost 10 years since the pugnacious public intellectual Susan Sontag put out a grim prognosis for the fine art of caring a lot about movies. Even before our exciting new era of B-list TV shows regurgitated as formulaic A-list money-sink films, Sontag wrote, in The New York Times Magazine, that “cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art.” Faintly perceptible among all the noisy, disposable schlock that bears her out (how many Deuce Bigalow films will be enough?), rebuttals have trickled in ever since.
The latest is The End of Cinematics, part three of Mikel Rouse’s experimental multimedia performance-art opera cycle, which opens at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center Wednesday and comes front-loaded with questions: Just what is it, exactly? What does it mean? Is it any good? Is it something about which people will say, “Hey, that sounds really cool,” and then not bother to attend? Or bother to attend but come out saying, “OK, what the fuck was that all about?” Well, maybe.
Let’s put it this way. The End of Cinematics and porn have this much in common: You know them when you see them, and you’ll have a hell of a time proving they’re not inherently masturbatory. Beyond that, definitions become tricky. But don’t get the wrong idea. While hardly obscene, Rouse’s production has been designed to engender titillation and, if all goes well, a kind of release—from the odiously corporatized commercialism and fragmentation of today’s entertainment media. Surely we can do without commercials on our cell phones or another version of The Longest Yard.
The End of Cinematics combines a pop-infused score with digital video footage shot by Rouse on the streets of Paris, braided with live video of onstage action and projected on multiple screens, in surround sound. It is confounding and daring, visceral and cerebral, and sort of like being inside a Talking Heads video. It is most certainly at the center of several academic arts institutions’ reassessments of their programming philosophies, and it could be the salvation of cinema—or just its stinking corpse. Everyone hopes it will be less exhausting to experience than it is to explain.
“In a very loose way,” Rouse said on the phone from New York last week, “it’s about corporate entertainment. It’s also about where we are with new technologies. People fall into these old formats, but the technology is there to do many things. They can kind of reinvent the world. If they want to. But if people continue to do the same old thing, it probably will be the end of cinema.” He added, “I remember how great it felt to take film seriously, to really argue about it. That’s harder now.”
Rouse was born in St. Louis in 1957 as Michael, but he changed that at an early age because to him it sounded like Mikel and looked cooler that way in print. If you can’t decide whether this makes him insufferably pretentious or disarmingly agreeable, rest assured that your ambivalence is not only quite normal, but in fact the ideal preparation for becoming acquainted with his work.
Although Rouse exudes privilege, he seems to have earned it. Gathering momentum and sounding younger than his age, he is disposed to momentous pronouncements: “The non-narrative nature of things has always been interesting to me.” “I felt so much better when I learned that Robert Rauschenberg had a lot of TVs on when he worked.” “Hollywood still thinks it’s about stories. I think it’s about how we consume information. We’re processing in a new way.” But in truth, he doesn’t display a gadfly’s dark heart or a phony’s insolence, and he does encourage Sontag’s lamented sense of wonder.
He is foremost a composer, and The End of Cinematics’ music, of which Rouse has formidable command, is comely and streamlined, like the iPods on which it is certain to be played hereafter. (“I’m really excited about the fact that this is available on iTunes only,” he said.) It manages, with little apparent effort, to rouse and hypnotize. Twitching, multilayered loops of crystalline synth stabs, or warmly Beatles-obedient chord changes and vocal-harmony vamps, buttress Rouse’s jaunty melodic intuition. It’s easy to sense, and appreciate, his decision not to let affinities for precision, decoration and production values obscure the music’s true humanness.
Influenced by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, American talk shows and Sontag’s essays, Rouse’s opera trilogy has been in progress (alongside other completed musical and multimedia works) since 1989. Failing Kansas, part one, examined media manipulation of perception, through a solo Rouse vocal performance in counterpoint with several other prerecorded voices. Part two, the “talk-show opera” Dennis Cleveland, took on faith and information-age spirituality. The repetitive ritual of television, Rouse said, offers “the same consistent formality you get from a Catholic Mass.” The End of Cinematics premiered last month at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, his most generous benefactor. “That is the new model for presenters if they’re going to survive,” Rouse declared, not without gratitude. “The response has been overwhelming. I got this impression that it’s a Zeitgeist moment. People are saying it’s time for something new.”
“As a marketing director, I can tell you it’s really hard to sell,” said the Mondavi Center’s Richard Rojo of Rouse’s work. “I can tell you straight out we’re going to lose money. But it’s a very, very good investment. I went to see the Krannert premiere, and I walked out of that absolutely not understanding it. I don’t know whether it’s great art with a capital G, but for me it was amazing. The majority of the audience was confused, and that’s perfectly legitimate. You have to get back in the car and argue about it. You may not know for a week or a month whether it’s a new classic or garbage.”
Rojo continued, “There will be people who walk out. They’ll think they’ve bought tickets to a play. We’ll get some complaints. We’ll give people their money back.” Not unaware that in Paris in 1913, when Igor Stravinsky married modernism and paganism into a new kind of dance number, riots occurred, Rojo figured Mikel Rouse in Davis in 2005 should be manageable enough.
What’s more, given the legacy of capital-intensive creativity that Rouse and Sontag have repudiated, Rojo figured he had a sort of institutional duty. “In the last few years, there has been a discussion among university arts centers about what is the proper role for us to play in supporting new arts,” he said. “Commissioning has been an area of major research. We’re trying to give it a higher profile now. We can be fairly entrepreneurial. There’s risk involved, oh yeah. We may or may not succeed, and an artist that we’re supporting may not succeed. But if you’re not prepared to take on that risk, you have to wonder, who’s going to support them?”
Hence the new and ongoing Mondavi Center series of commissioned avant-garde works, of which The End of Cinematics is one example. “Of course, these are artists with major, acknowledged reputations,” Rojo added. “So, they’re calculated risks.”
Jesse Drew, the associate director of the university’s technocultural-studies department, thinks such risks are the right way for the Mondavi Center to go. “Some of their program concepts,” he said, “it’s like they come from public television. Which is fine—but, like public television, they should be building audiences.”
Drew will give a pre-performance lecture related to The End of Cinematics on Saturday evening. He doesn’t know Rouse but has a good idea of where he’s coming from—a place where attention spans have shortened, perhaps, but also deepened. “People’s senses are still evolving,” Drew said. “The whole thing about, oh, you can’t do your homework and listen to music at the same time. Well, bullshit. I teach editing. We look at commercials from the 1950s and from now. In the ’50s, it took a whole minute to get a message across, and an entirely linear narrative. Then you take a 10-second McDonald’s commercial from today—even the name McDonald’s is only in there for a flash—and you get it.”
As Rouse put it, excitedly, “In your mind, you can make connections you might not have made if I told you when to laugh or cry.”
“What I’m so excited about,” Rouse said, “is that this is all about possibility. You think about what was happening in dinosaur rock music right before punk hit. I remember what it was like to move to New York in the ’70s and be part of that whole scene. It’s still hard work—because there are more possibilities—but I’m more excited now than I was then.”
Rouse explained that his initial music and footage for this enterprise were created “on a shoestring budget.” And yes, plausibly, anyone could generate the rudiments of The End of Cinematics even with scant resources. But not everyone takes his home movies to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to send them through the wringer of digital manipulation and motion-sensing stereo television. Whatever that is.
“The commercial cinema,” Sontag wrote, “has settled for a policy of bloated filmmaking, a brazen combinatory or recombinatory art, in the hope of reproducing past successes.” For the most part, oddly enough, you could describe The End of Cinematics that way, too. Which perhaps is why, of his modus operandi, Rouse allowed, “This is not a solution. It’s one part of a puzzle.”
“Increasingly, people’s existences are mediated,” said Drew. “People confuse what they know from experience with what they know from media.” Here is precisely the frontier, both thrilling and horrifying, into which Rouse has so assertively ventured. In spite of its alarmist title, The End of Cinematics seems curiously optimistic. Maybe it really can also be the beginning of something else.