Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dulce et Decorum; The Great War, Hotel Modern, Wexner Center, 01/21/10

“Someday they’ll probably
Make a movie out of all of this
There won’t even have to be a murder
Just a slow, dissolving kiss…”
-Elvis Costello, “Poor Napoleon”

No way I could literally describe this would make it sound as incredibly touching or awesome as it was, but I have to try or I’m going to hate myself. 

Dutch theater troupe Hotel Modern do a WWI movie in real time with scale sets and toy soldiers, including live music and classic Foley sound effects.  It opens with a map being unfolded and iconic steam engines and industrial buildings and ships and cigars and the Eiffel tower laid over it, with live narration that gives the impression of a winking parody of a BBC or Time Life movie about the beginnings of the war to end wars.

Then it zooms in and cuts to another “set” of miniature landscape, and the narration is the first of several letters from actual soldiers.  Black and white, what’s meant to be a trench, and you can see them manipulating the elements but in five minutes you don’t care more than you don’t notice.  And it goes from there in fragments, this transparency of process and storytelling and manipulation so you’re looking through what they’re doing but you’re emotionally engaged anyway.  You’re moved anyway.

Outing myself as even more of a geek – I know, I didn’t think that was possible either – a few years ago I helped playtest a White Wolf roleplaying game, Wraith: The Great War.  One of the most elegant mechanics I thought that had was “the fickle finger of fate” meant to model how much more likely you were to die from an errant shell or a landmine because of how closely packed together soldiers were.  The new mechanized nature of warfare made it feel more like fate, like some unseen force was plucking people out and killing/maiming them.  While I know the members of this troupe never played that game, they just as directly show this effect with, well, hands, as in one of the most searing images of the production,  in color, with clattering percussion conjuring (because nothing in this show just mimics) gunfire, toy soldiers are set up and then knocked over with a finger, a sparkler and a blowtorch backlighting them in flame,  again and again and again.

The other image that stuck with me and seemed to sum up the overall aesthetic of this was a very deliberate dirt, then water turning the dirt to mud, then “corpses” of toy soldiers placed face down in it – breaking from earlier when we always saw them die – then more, then more mud, then white powder for snow, then the snow washed off but no sign of the bodies, too many and too deep underground, then cutting away to another grey figure in a trench singing a folksong, slurring and through static.

Runs through tomorrow, you won’t regret going, I promise.

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