The postmodern opera composer and filmmaker Mikel Rouse has never seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It's the principle of the thing. "It's not that I wouldn't enjoy one. It's just that what he represents is so pervasive," Rouse said in a recent interview from New York.
Lest he be considered a killjoy, Rouse adds, "I'm all for mindless entertainment, but a steady diet of that is making America obese. Eating at McDonald's is OK if you do it once a month!"
This Thursday and Friday, Sept. 28 and 29, Rouse will open the world tour of his multimedia opera The End Of Cinematics at UNC's Memorial Hall, before the show returns to New York and the Next Wave festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music. At a pre-performance symposium on Friday, noted composer and music critic Kyle Gann will be on hand [see Scan on page 45].
For two decades, Rouse has been a remarkably prolific composer, recording artist and filmmaker. He's published string quartets and recorded at least one album of music every year for 20 years. And he has pushed the boundaries of the film medium with his conceptual compositions. The End Of Cinematics features Rouse himself along with vocal and instrumental performers in a post-cinematic light and sound extravaganza that mixes elements of live and prerecorded entertainment. "My music sounds familiar, but if you listen closely, you'll hear very complex metric structures."
The work, which premiered a year ago at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, represents the culmination of a three-part cycle collectively called the Opera Verité trilogy. The first, Kansas Failing, was a recreation of the events that inspired the book and movie In Cold Blood, in which Rouse returned to the same primary sources used by Truman Capote. Dennis Cleveland followed, in which Rouse played a mock preacher and broke the fourth wall, engaging audience participation.
The closing chapter, The End Of Cinematics, takes as its inspiration two widely noted late essays by Susan Sontag in which she lamented the end of classical cinema, "The Death of Cinema" and "A Century of Cinema," both written for The New York Times. As much as Sontag represented the highbrow culture of her day, she also came from an era in which films by the European upstarts Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Bernardo Bertolucci jostled for space in urban theaters with the late work of such Hollywood masters as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. Movies were a fertile meeting ground of high and low art, and it was fashionable for high-end intellectuals to take them seriously.
But when Sontag's cris de couer appeared in the late 1990s, Rouse notes, "She got a lot of flak." Critics accused her of being out of touch with the new work of young international filmmakers, and of taking herself and her daily movie-going habit too seriously.
Rouse, born in 1957 in Poplar Bluff, Mo., is a generation younger than Sontag, but he feels similar nostalgia for a time when movies seemed to matter more. He's lived in New York for 27 years and witnessed firsthand the dismantling of the cinematic culture as the rapidly yuppifying New York priced its art houses out of business. The Thalia Soho vanished, as did Theatre 80 St. Marks and Bleecker Street Cinema. These were dingy little places with eccentric schedules, and they were a place for a small subculture of movie lovers to rub shoulders in the anonymous darkness. (It was at the Thalia that I once watched Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, one of the signature films of Italian neo-Realism, with a hot young filmmaker named Spike Lee seated across the aisle from me.)
But all of that is gone now. "I was heartbroken to see them close," Rouse says. "America is very good at not valuing its own culture. Take jazz--in the 1940s and '50s, the musicians had to go to Paris to make a living. But now we love jazz."
"Now, when I go to the movies," he says, "I feel like I'm going to an amusement park."
Rouse acknowledges--and appreciates--the fundamentally populist nature of the cinematic medium. "First of all, our movie experience is affected by eating, the sugar rush we get from candy, soda and popcorn. Then, people go to the movies thinking, 'I won't have to think about my life for the next two hours.' That's very different from the mental state you're in when you're going to the theater or a dance performance."
When Rouse read Sontag, however, he recognized a kindred spirit, someone who articulated what we have lost: an ability to be surprised, or enchanted. The special effects extravaganzas like King Kong (the Peter Jackson remake, that is) and The Matrix are old hat. It's difficult to fathom the innocent wonder of the first people to see the first films by the Lumière brothers in Paris, such as the cinema world's equivalent of the Wright brothers' breakthrough, the one-minute 1895 film in which a train rolled into a station, and--legend has it--audiences bolted from their seats because they were afraid the train would hit them. And it's hard to imagine any film by Pedro Almodóvar or Steven Soderbergh generating the passions of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist or Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers.
With his latest work, Rouse is trying to recreate that sense of wonder Sontag mourned. The End Of Cinematics contains a libretto of non-narrative songs. It's not a literal story, but an attempt to push our cinematic experience forward. Rouse employs six rear projection screens, and scrims in front of them. Actors perform in between, sometimes in the projected film, which was shot in Paris, and sometimes in front of the screens as live actors.
"The hyper-real 3-D element is what I'm most proud of," Rouse says. "The distance from the rear projection to the front scrim is 12 feet, but [in the production] the stage appears to expand to 40 feet or so. It's an interesting envelope between video projection and live performance."
The End Of Cinematics will be performed at UNC's Memorial Hall on Thursday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. The Friday performance will be preceded by a symposium at the Carolina Inn. For more information and tickets, go to www.carolinaperformingarts.org. For more on Mikel Rouse's work, including song, film and performance samples, go to www.mikelrouse.com and www.endofcinematics.com.