“I’m squinting my eyes and turning
Off and on and on and off the lights”
A Perspective on Gregory Frye’s Experimental Documentary ‘Muses are the Life Blood’
By Pablo D’Stair
If more than a half-dozen or so people knew me, it would be well known that I have something of a marked disdain for documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and his technique of all but effacing the gravity of his subjects with filmic tweaks and faux-avant overlays, his penchant for doing almost anything to avoid letting the simplicity of having the people he has access to speak and deliver commentary on themselves and the germs of whatever larger subject is being plumbed. I find it fundamentally egregious to treat the living subjects a documentary film is filtered through as mere parts of a larger mechanism of stylistic cinema—put flatly, documentary should never be style-over-substance, not even somewhat.
I begin here by mentioning this because filmmaker Gregory Frye treads a line close to what I’d called Morris-esque in his experimental documentary ‘Muses are the Life Blood’. But in the flatly proclaimed word ‘experimental’ Frye avoids the sins of Morris and his ilk, in fact does more than just side-step them, manages to actually give reason for utilizing the subject as a stepping off point for his own exploratory, even indulgent, stylings. Here, indeed, indulgence seems to be the order of the day, for the experiment of the documentary style Frye takes is not (or does not seem to me) to be centrally stating interest in his surface subject—the painter Zoltan Galos and the particular artworks being prepared for an installation showing—but instead posits as primary subject his own take on the paintings, his documenting being of his own reaction, mindset, interpretation while the painter and paintings, themselves, are utilized only so far as they can help him explore this.
Admittedly, my gut does tighten and begin to crawl a little at this choice, but just as admittedly I know that to approach the cinema as audience though this bellyache would be quite a pointless, even infantile, mistake. To me, I will say it, having access to such striking (I am unabashedly in love with the paintings displayed, find them spellbinding) artwork and to the creator of it begs—even demands—a more traditional (or perhaps better said ‘humble’) exploration. By all means pan the camera over the work endlessly, let the individual images bleed themselves into multiple, into infinite, become almost animated as they do—this is a most singular attribute of these paintings and one that Frye should be commended for so lavishly letting have the best part of the stage—but for Christ’s just let’s please hear the painter speak on them—not to explain, not to lecture, but to give audience the human voice of Creator in concert with Creation (maybe some effervescent music of sorts subtly loitering behind things).
Frye though, chooses to create distance from the painter, but does so in a way peculiar enough to beget honest intrigue. The film opens with a brief and candid introduction to Galos, the man giving a few offhand remarks about the hard work of preparing the installation, the dreadfully oppressive air of Athens, and the jolly enjoyment of having a beer because of those two things. And then he is gone (except for a few disembodied remarks made part of the music which takes over—with force—the audio portion of the film).
As I say, this troubles me in a principle way and would trouble me more than that if not for a subtle moment where, in the midst of an effect-laden bit of filming, Frye shows the painter hammering some nails to set one of the canvas right, this after five minutes of audience being exposed to nothing but the naturally morphing, even narrative strokes of the man’s products. The painter is set as tinkerer, workman to the life that is now removed from him, nothing more to do but set the canvases up, apply the titles, have his beer. In fact, Galos’ removal gives a certain beauty to his free-floating voice talking of “Muses” and their apartness from the artist, Frye’s film (or so I say) giving physical manifestation to the ethereal thing that art is, presenting Galos (in humility) as Audience (if even that) to the glory of the manifestation of the Muse which gave him what he himself, having expressed, in no way posses any longer.
Because this, to me, is Frye’s take on the whole interface of Art and Artist (a somewhat reductionist take on the originator and a more than euphoric yawp concerning the result of the origination) I feel less combative in turning my mind so directly to the filmmaker, do not feel there is trickery going on, do not find him to be looking to aggrandize his view undeservedly off of the majesty of a subject matter he’s nothing to do with—really, this moment of Galos made artist-as-tinkerer reinforces the kind of charming gall of the affection in Frye’s film as a whole.
I mentioned before that I would, for myself, perhaps prefer some more melodious musical style to accompany the paintings. Indeed, being forthright, I cannot but state that the music seemed so at odds with my own reaction to the paintings I might have gone so far as to think it intrusive to the point of obscene. The music and its sense of discord (Frye being the composer and performer, it needs to be noted, though crediting himself pseudonymously as misterwoe) conflicted with the organic flux each single painting had—the music, to put it another way, was so insistent (or seemed to me) of a jaggedness, an oddness, a sense of writhing, unearthing, even just a kind of “weirdness” that it appeared to me to be choking part of the paintings’ breath out, not letting them stand alone (‘Could someone shut that shit off,’ I may have more than once thought wryly to myself while the film progressed).
But of course this is the collision of Audience with Artwork and (more importantly, something in the days since watching the film I have given the experimenter more and more credit for) the collision of Audience with Audience, which is, I postulate, the clash Frye aimed for, the goal of the experiment. Frye set his own particularized response, expressed in as raw a manner as he could honestly manage, as a Control to, in effect, let each audience be Variable to it. And the same thing could not be accomplished by letting the ‘art speak for itself,’ because the art—as Frye has Galos clearly state, redoubling the statement with his own technique—comes from elsewhere, is infinite, continually variable, has no specific mindset or argument, is a static perfection, a conduit asking nothing, only expressing.
To give a volatility and to explore his own reaction, Frye needs to play provocateur (not flamboyantly, but through equal artistic honesty to the material he uses as prompt) needs to make the audience, for better or worse, fight for their reaction in opposition to his own.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.