Alexis Gideon: The future is rough, unfinished and mythic

A few trends are starting to emerge in the multi-media present

Alexis Gideon performs “Video Musics III: Floating Oceans”/Photo: Tasha Zack

By A. L. ADAMS

Last week at the premiere of his third film, “Video Musics III: Floating Oceans,” Alexis Gideon took stage right looking for all the world like John Waters as shot by David Lynch: slicked-back hair, pencil mustache, and a long shadow looming diagonally behind him on the Hollywood Theatre’s deep red curtain. A roaring, almost unbearable hum of audio static sprang through the anticipatory air.

This kind of “somebody flipped a grounding switch, god knows where” dilemma tends to happen with an ambitious set-up like Gideon’s, which syncs film playback with live audio elements, adding quantized loops of melodica, guitar, and voice, as well as lead vocals, over the pre-recorded film soundtrack (already lush with symphony instruments, polyrhythmic percussion, and delicate piano). The theatrical mood already set, stepping back for sound-check troubleshooting would’ve been a buzz-kill in more ways than desired—so the performer wisely opted to power through.

Maybe it was Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Helen Daltoso’s glowing intro that, paradoxically, made the static (and other visual fuzz that followed) stand out so sharply: “Many artists do multidisciplinary work,” she acknowledged, “but most don’t do it this well.” Like a construction worker puppet precariously balanced on a scaffold (one of Gideon’s cinematic visions soon to unfold), this statement was a set-up for a fall. If RACC, which sponsored Floating Oceans to the tune of $5,100, believes Gideon to be the sole champion of his crafts, the org will be delighted to discover Good Night Billygoat’s extremely refined home-made stop-motion and accompanying soundtracks, Like A Villain’s adept live looping, and Ash Black Bufflo’s brilliantly intricate soundscapes in future seasons. Even Oryan Peterson-Jones’ (Datura Blues) home-hosted summer screenings of Kurasowa’s Dreams synced to live music have brought a similar rush. Our city is flush with multidisciplinary maestros; Gideon’s work, beautiful as it is, fits in as much as it stands out.

Meanwhile, Floating Oceans—a halcyon dreamscape of half-narratives (namely, the writings of Lord Dunsony) carefully rendered in stop-motion animation by Gideon and Coraline alum Cynthia Star—has been enthusiastically embraced, earning Gideon praise like:

“one of the most important figures in this city’s artistic landscape.” — Portland Mercury

“push[es] the envelope further than we could possibly imagine…” — Eyes + Edge

While we don’t doubt the piece’s singular appeal, its acclaim also exemplifies some more broadly trending themes:

The Allure of the Unfinished

John Frame’s elegantly-sculpted but narratively open-ended animations in Three Fragments of a Lost Tale this spring at PAM were nothing short of adored by critics, while the generally more story-driven shorts of the Northwest Animation Festival received far less fanfare. In August, ParaNorman—a locally-produced feature-length stop-mo film that undeniably told a story—was also greeted with mixed reviews, the Mercury snidely calling it “Chopra for kids.”

In Gideon’s Floating Oceans III, we’re given snips of story from both a “real” world and a fairytale one, interspersed with slightly-too-brief flashes of captions. We learn that a flaxen-haired princess and her beau are separated as he embarks upon a quest across the sea. We see a protracted and abstracted dinner party, held partially in a dining room and partially in the ocean. There’s a simplified depiction of capitalism wherein characters play tug-of-war with a brown coat and a pile of money as Gideon deadpans, “Buying, selling, buying, selling.” But we never get the whole story, in a traditional sense.

Whence the high-art world’s preference for the torn edge, the half-carved block, and the broken storyline against their more complete counterparts? Pure post-modern open-mindedness? A desire to jump into the artist’s narrative gaps with one’s own imaginary participation? Maybe audience members who are also dabblers empathize with fellow artists with incomplete projects; seeing the incomplete on display emboldens them to declare their own partial pieces “ready for primetime.” Maybe patron types, in the age of crowd-sourcing, DVD commentaries, and “Making Of” miniseries, demand that the veil be drawn so far back that process has become conflated with product. Or maybe modern arts appreciators harbor a bias that dismisses complete stories (with a beginning, a protagonist, a conflict and a resolution) as manipulative, moralizing and smug—the de facto property of politics, PR and religion. Sensing these preferences, is it a shrewder move for the modern artist to avoid completing a narrative arc? Maybe so.

In Gideon’s case, the sketchy narrative may also be a practical result of changing themes midstream. He initially intended to animate Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman before learning of an intellectual property conflict.

Lo-Fi, DIY

While Gideon’s show was happening (or maybe a little bit after) another act with similar appeal was gearing up across town to rock Backspace: Phil Elverum, aka Mt. Eerie or The Microphones, with a five-piece band in tow. No doubt a few people even wavered over which of these two acts to see—heck, in its lower register, Gideon’s voice even eerily resembles Elverum’s mentor Calvin Johnson. Credited with valuable contributions to the Olympia “lo-fi” recording movement in the early aughts, Elverum marshaled a horde of home-recorders with a simple rallying cry: it wouldn’t be cool if it were perfect. Bumps and scratches burned into a mix, Elverum’s logic went, proved the maker’s creative process was self-directed, and hence more authentic and sincere.

Though his arrangements are layered and lush, Gideon often lets his harmonies come in flat and his rhythms warp, and his film’s character fabrication is similarly rough-hewn.That aesthetic is divisive in both the music and animation communities: During the filming of Coraline, for instance, some staff grumbled that the digital “cleanup” that obscured puppets’ facial seams after animation erased too much of the evidence (or, as one artist put it, “thumbprint”) of hands-on craft—but the prevailing consensus was that visual tidiness was an indicator of extra care and high quality. Audio engineers grapple daily with the same dilemma: how much static seems “warm,” and how much seems sloppy? Which vocal do you choose: the most emotional, or the most tuneful? CD is cleaner, but is vinyl (or even cassette) cooler?

Alexis Gideon’s work, it seems, scores another point for Team Thumbprint against the Perfectionistas.

Alexis Gideon’s “Video Musics III: Floating Oceans”/Tasha Zack

Meta-Myth: the Story of Myth

“It’s about cultures’ lost spirituality, modern society’s disconnect from the power of dreams, and dreams reconnecting us with the lost magical universe,” summarized Gideon in his post-film talkback.

This, then, is “the story of a lost story.” This meta-narrative about how a given society has lost the memory of some crucial myths, seems to come up a lot these days (see dancer Robert Tyree’s statements about society’s loss of the ability to dance all night, or writer Anthony Alvorado’s observation that magical practices have subsided in the modern world). Where a partially-finished work has a sense of untapped potential as something yet to be created, the partially-forgotten narrative is posed as an irretrievable loss.

Rather than revive old myths in their entirety or create new myths through complete new storytelling, many artists favor a partial retelling, leaving the remaining space to lament society’s partial amnesia even as they reinforce it. (Ah, l’ennui. The Lost Chord will never be heard again ’til heaven.)

As Gideon continues his heady, indulgent sensory exploration, his works are poised to become a relevant point of reference in several perpendicular contemporary art and film discussions. And hopefully, he’s whet RACC’s appetite to support more animators and innovators of his ilk.

NOTES

A.L. Adams, former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine, also holds credentials in music, film, and craft. Before you answer a critique with “Let’s see you try it,” be advised: Adams probably has.

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